Doctor in Iconic Picture Recalls 88 Uprising in New Book

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 5 September 2013

RANGOON — With the completion of Dr Win Zaw’s new book, containing a personal account of what happened during Burma’s pro-democracy uprising 25 years ago, the last jigsaw about the fates of the two doctors captured in one of the most of iconic pictures of the 1988 crackdown has fallen in place.

Win Zaw, who was famously photographed while carrying a blood-soaked young woman shot by soldiers in September 1988, said during a book launch on Wednesday that he had long wished to write a first-hand account of the tragic events.

“But only these days, with more freedom of expression, I could make it happen,” said the now 48-year old medical doctor. In his Burmese-language book, titled “Still Alive,” he shares experiences during the 88 Uprising, and scenes of the events are illustrated with more than 200 pictures.

Win Zaw was a 23-year old medical student during the weeks of bloody repression that followed a government takeover by the military on Sept. 18, 1988. He had volunteered at Rangoon General Hospital where hundreds of injured demonstrators were brought in. Many of them were seriously wounded after trigger-happy soldiers opened fire on the pro-democracy protesters as they took the streets to challenge military rule.

The highlight of the book is his description of the events of Sept. 19 1988, the day after the military coup, when he and other medical personnel ventured out into Rangoon’s streets in an ambulance to collect scores of wounded protestors and bring them to the hospital for medical treatment.

During their rescue mission that day, he and another house surgeon named Saw Lwin carried a heavily wounded girl to the ambulance — the dramatic scene was captured on camera by 24-year-old American photographer Steve Lehman, who had joined them in the ambulance.

The picture appeared on the cover of the October 1988 issue of Newsweek’s Asian edition and soon became an icon photo that showed the brutality of the Burma Army’s crackdown.

In news reports, the wounded girl was identified as Win Maw Oo, a school girl who succumbed to her injuries later that day, but not before she told her parents to withhold the Buddhist rites for her soul “until there is democracy in Burma.” Her sacrifice received great praise in Burma and abroad.

The two men who tried to rescue her remained largely unknown as they continued to live in Burma, which remained isolated and under ironfisted military rule until political reforms began only two years ago.

“I just want to clarify about [the events in] the historic picture, and tell people that I did something what I should do as a human as well as a medical student at that time,” Win Zaw explained his reasons for writing the book.

“My book is just a reminder that among the people who sacrificed their lives during the uprising, there is a school girl whose name is now well-known, while there are also numerous unsung heroes,” he added.

In the years following the crackdown, speculation arose about the identities of the young house surgeons in the photo. Some reports misidentified Win Zaw, while other accounts even claimed that all three people in the picture had since died.

Burma’s military government had taken note of Win Zaw and Saw Lwin after the photo of their rescue of the young girl Win Maw Oo became famous the world over.

Four years later, the notorious Military Intelligence’s unit-6, better known as MI-6, detained Win Zaw for five days and interrogated him about the details of the events of that day. Until recently, his attempts to obtain a passport were repeatedly denied, perhaps because officials feared that he would travel abroad to tell his story.

In a separate chapter of the book, Win Zaw writes about the fate of his fellow house surgeon Saw Lwin, who would suffer greatly for his efforts to rescue Win Maw Oo.

The military authorities forced Saw Lwin’s father to retire from his position as the director of a government department. This mounting pressure on his family caused Saw Lwin to sink into a deep depression. Unable to cope, he committed suicide several years later.

During Thursday’s book launch, Win Maw Oo’s family members were among attendants. Win Kyu, the father of the school girl, said his family was very grateful to both doctors because he had a chance to see his daughter on her deathbed.

“We thank them very much for we had a proper burial for our daughter,” the father said. “Were it not for them, my daughters would have been thrown into a crematorium while alive by the military, as they did with many other wounded people.”