Bearded Activist in Hiding After Alleging Smear Campaign

By Lawi Weng 12 March 2015

RANGOON — Tun Tun Oo, a 55-year-old native of Pegu Division who was widely pictured in the media assisting student demonstrators during a brutal police crackdown on Tuesday, has gone into hiding following harassment by police and community members.

Also known as U Mote Sate, which means beard in Burmese, Tun Tun Oo told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday night that he fled his home when police came to arrest him on the grounds that he was involved in student demonstrations.

“I have big problems now,” he said, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Wednesday night. “Police came to my house and tried to arrest me, now I am in hiding.”

When police clashed with demonstrators on March 10, Tun Tun Oo fled the violent scene with this reporter, hiding out for several hours in a nearby banana forest. Photos of his iconic bearded face soon went viral, later picked up and shared even by government officials.

Burma’s Minister of Information Ye Htut posted of a photograph of him on Facebook, stating that he “does not seem like a student.” Tun Tun Oo was easily recognizable in the photo because of his long grey beard, the inspiration for his nickname.

He said that comments circulated on social media labeled him as a “Muslim instigator,” leading locals to harass him. Tun Tun Oo is a Buddhist from Gyobingauk, a small town in Pegu Division.

“When people look at me and see that I have a long beard, they think that I am Muslim,” he said. “This isn’t true; I just like having a long beard. I will only shave my beard when we have a real democracy in Burma.”

Some members of the Gyobingauk Muslim community called him to inquire about his faith, he said, concerned that religious tension could build in the town, which was affected by religious riots in early 2013 that left homes and mosques destroyed in five Pegu townships.

Tun Tun Oo is well-known in his small community as a pro-democracy activist. He began assisting student protesters by providing site security when police prevented their advance from Letpadan on March 3.

He said that while he did not know where the comments about his faith originated, he believed that they were meant to damage the public image of both himself and the Muslim community in Pegu.

“I am just a normal person,” said Tun Tun Oo from his temporary refuge in the jungle. “But I am happy to help the students, as I helped other activists before. We need real democracy.”