Burma’s Freedom Fighters: From Port Blair to a Kolkata Jail

February 4th, 2008, marks the tenth anniversary of the illegal detention of 34 Burmese freedom fighters in Bengal. The Solidarity Committee for Burma’s Freedom Fighters, whose members include Ashok Mitra, Lakshmi Sehgal, and others, carried out a Dharna in protest. Participants included Sujato Bhadra (APDR), Choton Das (Bandi Mukti Committee), Mahasweta Devi, and other academicians and writers. The press release is given below.
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Background:

The Solidarity Committee was formed at the initiative of Dr (Col) Lakshmi Sahgal after she read about the terrible conditions of detention of 34 Burmese freedom fighters in Presidency jail in Kolkata. The 34 Burmese freedom fighters have been kept under detention from February 1998. The Indian armed forces have claimed that these men are a major gang of international gun runners who were bringing arms for India’s insurgents operating in the North East. The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) but the CBI did not file charge sheets for six and half years.

After their initial arrest they were taken to Campbell Bay where they were deprived of basic amenities such as toilets and water. Then they were shifted to the jail in Port Blair where they were denied their rights as undertrials, shifted to mosquito-infected, unhygienic barracks without adequate toilets and water. Now they are lodged in Presidency jail where once again they are being subjected to indignities which even convicted criminals are not. The Solidarity Committee believes these men to be freedom fighters whose right to dignity and human rights must be safeguarded. They must be given the respect due to political prisoners.

Personal accounts of prisoners upto point of arrest

Soe Naing, S/o Maung Nyo

I was in Arakan Ram Ree township in Arakan state in Burma (Myanmar) in 1954. My father was a farmer and my mother a school teacher. I did my studies in Rangoon. In 1970 I joined Rangoon University to study Chemistry but I could not finish my studies because I joined the nation wide movement against the brutal military regime of General Ne Win.

In 1962 Gen Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister U Nu. India gave refuge to U Nu and his family because India always stood for democracy and rule of law. Under Gen Ne Win my people became poorer and poorer. Farmers were forced to sell their products to the army for throwaway prices and there was an acute shortage of food. Burma, which was a rice exporting country became a rice importing nation. The gap between the ordinary people and the army officers grew to huge proportions. The villagers were forced to work without wages and they had to dig and build for the army apart from being forced to contribute food and materials such as bamboo to the Burmese Junta.

Apart from the Burmese people who were the victims of Gen Ne Win’s military regime the Indians too were his targets. Hundreds and thousands of Indian were forced to leave their homes, leaving behinds their shops factories and commercial establishments because of General Ne Win’s policies. I had many friends and acquaintances who escaped from Burma during the mass exodus of Indians in 1962.

The people of Burma rose up in revolt against Ne Win’s military repression and there were strikes and demonstrations all over the country. The students blocked military trucks and stopped them from entrying the campus in support of their demand that the students union building be reconstructed as it been demolished by the military junta. At that time many of my friends were arrested for taking part in the demonstrations. This was in 1970, the year I had joined Rangoon University. I too along with thousands of students joined students groups which were working secretly to overthrow the military junta and restore democracy and civil rule in our country. I published a pamphlet entitled “Mra Kyunt Tha” in Arakan language against human rights violations being committed by Gen Ne Win. While I was working secretly with a pro democracy group and was living in the jungles I wrote to my father to send me some money. Unfortunately the letter was intercepted by the authorities and my father was arrested. The military brutally tortured my father and he lost one eye. Since my father refused to betray his son he was kept under illegal detention for two years by the military authorities without trial, from 1973 to 1975.

Gen Ne Win ordered public execution of all those who dared protest against his inhuman regime. In 1974 the military arrested my leader Mr. Maung Thein Mra and he was publically beheaded in an attempt to terrorise and discourage anyone from protesting. I myself am a witness to the execution of more than 20 of members of our group. I too was taken into the jungles where deep trenches had been dug. I was thrown into one trench and the military would have shot me but a Burmese soldier arrived with a message that I was not to be killed but brought alive to the military headquarters for interrogation. They wanted to question me because I was involved in liasoning between different pro democracy groups. I was illegally detained by the army for a year at Akyab where I was mercilessly beaten and tortured and then sent to Rangoon Jail and finally released in 1976.

The story of my release from jail is itself interesting. Gen Ne Win was a very superstitious man and he invited the Chief Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka to plant a Bodhi tree in the belief it would bring him luck. The monk agreed to do this on the condition that Gen Ne Win release all political prisoner and India supported this demand. That is why I along with many political prisoners were released from the jail in June 1976.

On my release I was not allowed to go to Rangoon but was forced to go back to my village in Arakan State where the Military authorities tried to buy my loyalty by offering me a government job. I refused and I returned to Rangoon secretly but I could not resume my pro democracy work because the military intelligence were on my trail and they had arrested my friends. In these circumstances I was compelled to leave Rangoon and go into hiding in Maqui township which is on the Burma Thai border and live under an assumed name. I was thus compelled to live in Thailand to avoid arrest and torture.

In 1988 August there was once again a nationwide uprising against Gen Ne Win’s military misrule. The uprising was started by the students but every section of Burmese society, revolted and every ethnic group including the Arakans, Karens, Chins, Kachins and Karenis joined the movement for restoration of democracy and human rights. All the nationalities and people from every walk of life including students, monks, professionals and even a section of the armed forces joined the movement which was led by our leader and Nobel Laureat Aung Saan Su Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy.

As can be expected from a military junta there was an attempt to crush the revolt with military boots and guns. Hundreds and thousands of students and other activists were arrested and tortured. No family in Burma was left untouched and every home lost family members. Despite this attempt to crush the uprising the people continued their struggle and finally in 1990 the military junta was forced to hold elections. In that elections Daw Aung Saan Su Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy won by an overwhelming majority. All revolutionary groups including the Arakan Liberation Party supported the NLD and welcomed the landslide victory for democracy. However, the military regime refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government and instead put the MPs in jail and even put Aung Saan Su Kyi under house arrest.

Under these circumstances hundreds and thousands of Burmese students and others who took active part in the uprising were forced to leave their homes and their country and take refuge in neighbouring countries, India and Thailand. I helped many students and activists to escape and also provided food, medical care and shelter to those who came into Thailand. I was also actively involved in the movement for the restoration of democracy and human rights. All the ethnic national groups along with the Burmese people formed the Democratic Alliance of Burma and we worked together for the liberation of our country from the curse of army rule. We regard this as the second liberation struggle, the first was the Burmese struggle against the British led by Aung Saan Su Kyi’s father, Aung Saan.

The Burmese people have always looked to India and Indians for inspiration. India gave U Nu shelter ad his daughter worked for the All India Radio in the Burmese section. India’s first Prime Minister was a personal friend of U Nu and this time also India conferred its highest award to Aung Saan Su Kyi when they awarded her the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. The world leaders and former Nobel Laureates have all been working for the release of our leader and for the restoration of peace in Burma. The United Nations has passed resolutions against the military regime which called itself State Law and Order Restoration (SLORC) and now the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). India welcomed the Burmese refugees and allowed them to stay in for the past decade on humanitarian grounds. Above all we thought since India gave support to the Bangladesh liberation movement India would extend its help to the movement for the restoration of civil rule in Burma.

It was in this background that my party did not hesitate to cooperate with the Indian military intelligence when they contacted our leaders in Thailand. We thought it our duty to help the Indians in return for their solidarity for our movement. I do not know exactly how and when the Indian military intelligence contacted my party, the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA but by late 1990s we were negotiating with one man of the Indian Military Intelligence who spoke Burmese language very well and we all called him Nay Win. My leaders, which included Khaing Raza and Saw Tun were in touch with Indian authorities in Bangladesh and in Thailand. Later on Saw Tun visited India on several occasions and he was authorized by the National United Party of Arakan to cooperate with Government of India.

The Indian Military Intelligence wanted us to provide with information on the movement of Chinese fishing boats in Burmese waters because these fishermen were being used as spies by the Chinese Government to spy on Indian military and naval positions. The Indian Military Intelligence also wanted information on Chinese Radar Station in Coco Island which is very near Andaman Islands. My leaders told me that in return for this information the Indian Government was going to allow us to operate from Landfall Island, which is the Northern most point on the Andaman Island.

The negotiations with Col Garewal went on for several years and our party paid him large sums of money. These negotiations were carried out between our party and Indian authorities in Bangkok and in New Delhi. Finally my leader Kahing Raza who was the chief of the Arakan Army informed me in the last week of January that the negotiations are completed and we would soon leave for Landfall Island. My leader also informed me that Col Garewal had asked for US$ 10,000 to be sent urgently. A member of our party who went to India with the money was refused visa but Col Garewal intervened and the visa was issued by the Indian Embassy at Bangkok. Our man went to New Delhi and met Col Garewal and gave him the money and Col Garewal gave him the code or frequency on which we could contact him.

On February 6, 1998 I was ordered by my leader Khain Raza to make arrangements to arrive at Landfall island by February 10, 1998.

More accounts here.