By August 8, 1988, Thiha Yarzar, the twenty-three year old political activist and student leader had been appointed secretary of the National Student Union.
Photo by Paul Pickrem
Graphic Design by Garrett Kostin
Photo by Paul Pickrem
Graphic Design by Garrett Kostin
On that infamous day the people of Burma confronted the ruling military with a nationwide public demonstration.
Thiha led the people of Thingangyun Township, where he lived, on a seven-mile march to downtown Rangoon, carrying anti- government placards.
The national and international media hovered to see what would happen. What they witnessed is marked indelibly on the minds and hearts of the Burmese people and pro-democracy activists everywhere, forever.
Thiha recalled how the throngs of demonstrators walked into a wall of police and soldiers not long after they reached the area of the government offices near the downtown.
“They blocked the road with military vehicles, including a tank,” he said.
When the people saw the soldiers they slowed down, until they eventually stopped. The soldiers jumped from their trucks and aimed their German-made automatic assault rifles at the demonstrators. Then, without any warning, they fired at the people from about 60 meters.
He remembered the crowd on the left of him was in chaos after about seven people fell to the ground, shot.
People started running toward the soldiers, some out of anger, but some out of fear.
They continued shooting, even as the media watched.
He said he had climbed on top of car and was shouting through a bullhorn to the soldiers to stop shooting.
As the crowd panicked and started to run away from the soldiers in all directions, they stopped shooting and ran back to their vehicles.
They left the area when the people dispersed.
“Several friends pulled me off the car I had climbed on and into another vehicle, which drove away quickly.
“Shooting could be heard all over the city.
“I said, ‘I need to be in the crowd leading the people.’ They said, ‘Look at your right leg.”
Thiha Yarzar has continued to speak out for democracy and human rights in Burma, since his release from prison in 2008. (Photo by Paul Pickrem)Only then did he realize he had been shot in the leg and was bleeding. He lifted his pant leg, during an interview, to show me a small scar on the right knee, where he said the bullet grazed the knee but did not damage it.
He and his comrades returned to a student office in a secret location.
“Some of my friends cried. Lots of people had died,” he said.
“I told them beforehand I knew the soldiers would shoot. I told them we would have to continue the demonstrations until the government fell.”
Though it is estimated that thousands of demonstrators were shot by the military across Burma that day, the demonstrations grew in size nationwide.
General Ne Win, leader of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, tried to calm the unrest through a series of transfers of power, eventually to a figurehead leader, Dr. Maung Maung.
However, forty days later, on September 18th, General Saw Maung took control of the country through a military coup, promising free and fair elections, and that the military would hand the power back to the people through an elected party.
Thiha and his fellow students remained in hiding, however, because they didn’t believe the new rulers.
“We didn’t trust them,” he said. “We knew that after the coup we would be arrested. We could guess what would happen.”
Two days after the coup, Thiha met with his family to discuss what they should do.
He urged his parents to publically disown him, through a newspaper announcement. It was a plan used by many student activists to protect their family members from harassment and retaliation from the government.
They announced they would have no further contact with their son.
“It was my idea, to protect them if they were interrogated by the police. I knew my parents loved me. My mom did not want to do it. She said, ‘Whatever happens we will face it.’ But, I said, ‘No Mom. It is the best thing to do.’ So, my mother cried.
“But, I said, ‘Don’t cry. I won’t die. Nobody can kill me because I have lots of friends.’
“Father told me not to raise a gun. ‘As a student you should be a politician,’ he said.
“But, my mother spoke to my father, saying, ‘He was right not to join the army when we asked him after the 10th grade. But, now may be the time to use a gun, if he wants to. He needs to decide for himself, in his own time.’
“Father said, ‘You do have to make your own choice. But you have to accept the consequences, whatever happens. You may die or you may live. But, whatever happens we are proud of you. So, you decide what you must do.’”
He said he didn’t tell them at the time what he was going to do.
“But, they knew that most students who fled would choose to become part of the armed struggle for democracy.”
He hugged and kissed his father, mother and sister.
His sister said she knew her husband, an army captain, would be dismissed. But, she said she didn’t care because he did not want to continue his army career.
“I felt very sad, because even though my parents and family supported me, I had to leave because my actions would put them in danger,” he said. “They knew I would flee to Thailand.”
Eventually, his father and brother-in-law would be dismissed from the military. His mother also lost her career as a teacher at a government college.
It would be almost two decades before he would see some of the people he hugged that day again, face-to-face.
The next day, he and several fellow student activists, crossed the Andaman Sea to Kawthung, on the southern tip of Burma.
Two days later, they illegally crossed the border into Thailand at Ranoung .
Thiha Yarzar had left Burma behind, for the first time in his life.
“I kept thinking about my parents and the people in Rangoon,” he said. “Some of my friends cried. I didn’t cry in front of them, but I was worried. The situation was very complicated and confusing.”
He said he stayed with a family member of former United Nations Secretary-General, U Thant, after arriving in Bangkok.
He recalls at that time that Bangkok and other cities and towns across Thailand became havens for Burmese student leaders, as Thai police “looked the other way.”
When the All Burma Student Democratic Front was founded in December 1988, Thiha joined and entered a two-month Officer Training Course and was trained by agents of foreign governments, including Israelis, French and the Americans.
He also received two months of military training from the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB).
“This was a very strange turn of events,” he said. “I wouldn’t join the army as a high school student, although I was the son of a Colonel. But, now I was in uniform anyway.
“As a student, my hobby was singing and playing guitar. Now, I held an M16 and a pistol instead of a guitar.”
Soon he was chosen for a special mission by the DAB. He and two other former students would be sent into Burma to photograph military targets in Rangoon, including a war office, military archives and military headquarters.
The team crossed the border into the Karen area in September, 1989.
“I was afraid of being caught. But, I wanted to see my family too.”
After reentering Burma, Thiha had two secret meetings in 1990 with his mother at the pagoda in the next township to the family home.
He said he apologized to her because he knew she worried about him joining the armed struggle.
“I became a rebel,” he told her.
She said, “It’s OK. I taught you to think before you act. But, do what you think is right. I don’t want to see you with a gun. You became a rebel, but, I support you. It’s OK. We don’t have much time, Son. You do what you think is right. You know better than I do about the students and the student movement. I won’t criticize you. Keep fighting for what you believe in.”
For the next three weeks thiha and the other students stayed inside the country, taking photographs, investigating troop movements and carrying documents and letters to activist leaders.
He was deployed on two other missions in 1990, narrowly escaping capture both times.
In May, he lied his way out of being arrested, with the wit and skills of a seasoned spy, while he carried grenades hidden in a basket of betel nuts. He said a soldier at the checkpoint actually had his hand on the basket.
When other travelers in the vehicle got out and went to the office to show their identification and travel documents, Thiha remained behind. The officer asked him to show his identification, but Thiha told him his wife had already taken it to the office to show it.
When the woman returned to the vehicle, Thiha asked her in front of the guard, “Did you show your documents?”
When she said she did, the officer thought she was Thiha’s wife and had shown his documents too.
“During training they told us to make eye-contact and show no fear,” he said. “I was afraid, but determined to complete the mission, no matter what the risk.
“I had planned well and was well-prepared and believed in my heart that I would be successful and not be arrested.”
He said the government had published his photo in a propaganda magazine and an informer had told police he was inside the country, so he was a wanted man in Burma.
He knew from intelligence gathered from double agents the government was searching for him but hadn’t been able to catch him.
On that mission, he talked his way into the confidence of police at a checkpoint, who warned him not to proceed on that road. Three people were later captured in that area and accused of a bombing they had nothing to do with.
They are still in prison today, he said.
In July, he was smuggling three single-use M72 rocket launchers in two bags of peanuts on the roof of a truck, and carrying a pistol, when a border guard noticed the bags looked strange, but didn’t bother to climb onto the roof to check the bags.
“I was prepared to shoot any soldiers or police who discovered them,” he recalled.
Later that night, he used an illegal taxi to transport the weapons because there was no regular taxi at the bus station.
He said he had to use extreme caution when he found out the talkative taxi driver was an off-duty policeman.
“When he asked what I did, I told him I was in the timber business.”
He left the weapons at a monastery in the care of a monk he knew. They were picked up the next day by his comrades.
While on one particular mission inside Burma, Thiha developed a relationship with the eldest daughter of a politician who hid him in his home.
The twenty-four year-old freedom fighter married nineteen year-old Htway Htway Oo on his birthday, December 25th, 1989.
On October 1, 1990, she gave birth to their daughter, who was given the name Tone Tone by the family.
Thiha Yarzar served 17 years, 6 months and 16 days
as a Political Prisoner in
Insein, Taungoo, Kalay, Taunggi and Mai Sat prisons
after receiving the Death Sentence at age 25.
However, the diverging roles of a soldier in the armed struggle for democracy and a father to Tone Tone would eventually create a tension inside Thiha that would cause him great turmoil for many years.
A series of events was about to unfold that set him on a path that led back to Insein Prison’s death row, for what prosecutors hoped would be the last time.
When the baby was just over three months old, Thiha led a team of insurgents which attacked a military barracks next to a media outlet in Rangoon. Eleven government troops were killed in the attack when two rockets destroyed the building.
The team was ordered to flee to Thailand. So, one of the three insurgents left first, while Thiha and the remaining man were to attempt to take a different route.
They had actually boarded a bus and taken their seats on January 10th, but Thiha received a last-minute telephone call from his commanders directing him to remain behind to make contact with another freedom fighter in Mandalay.
The third man, who stayed on the bus, made it safely to Thailand.
Thiha didn’t know when he got off that bus he would not leave Burma again for nearly 2 decades.
For the next week, he waited for more direction from his bosses who were setting up the meeting in Mandalay.
During that time he was contacted by his fifteen year-old brother-in-law, Myo Aung, who wanted a recommendation from Thiha so he too could join the insurgency, to fight in the jungle.
“I refused to recommend him because he was too young,” he said.
“He was just in the tenth grade. I worried I would be blamed by his parents if something happened to him. He was the apple of their eye; the youngest child and everyone loved him.”
But the determined boy left home with four other young men after making other contacts in the underground.
He was given sensitive documents outlining insurgency activities in the area by a man Thiha knew. But Myo Aung was not aware the documents included a letter which contained Thiha’s code name.
On the way to deliver those documents, the boys accidentally met another popular activist, who was under surveillance by Military Intelligence.
They were all arrested that evening at the main bus station in Rangoon.
The boys were tortured during interrogation, giving information about the insurgency and the name of the man who gave them the documents.
That man, Bamin Dhit, was arrested that night as well. He was brutally tortured and gave authorities Thiha’s real name and location.
On the afternoon of January 17, 1991, Thiha was hiding in a safe house in South Okka Lepa Township, in Rangoon, waiting for further orders.
He was very ill with malaria, which he contracted during one of his first missions inside Burma.
He recalled that a government official from the local neighborhood came to visit him around 3 p.m.
Thiha sensed he was in grave danger, but, was too sick to move quickly.
“He seemed to be afraid of me. He was pale.
“Suddenly, the house was raided by six army soldiers and the man scurried away quickly.”
The house, which had been completely surrounded, was soon full of soldiers and plainclothes police.
“They warned me not to try to run, forcing me down to the floor. When they handcuffed my hands behind me, they lifted me to my feet.
“My head was pounding from the malaria and I was shivering.
They teased me that I was shivering from fear. But I had a temperature of 102 degrees.”
They placed a black hood over his head and led him through the crowd gathered outside the house into a waiting car.
“I thought about how I could escape,” he said. “But I could do nothing.
“I knew I would face horrible torture and I might die. I could guess what they might do to me. I was lucky I didn’t go mad the last time they tortured me.”
Thiha Yarzar was twenty-five years old.
He arrived at an interrogation centre about 4:40 PM.
They placed him in a line of 13 others waiting to be processed by police.
As he looked at the others ahead of him in that line, he recognized fifteen year-old Myo Aung and Bamin Dhit, the colleague who had given his location to police.
Bamin Dhit was still bleeding from his head because of the torture. His face and eyes were bruised, his lip was swollen and his nose looked like it was broken.
“I understood very well. No one could stand up in that situation. I knew very well about the torture. I sympathized with him.”
Thiha said he saw a message in his colleague’s eyes.
“He apologized with his eyes, as if saying, ‘I couldn’t help it.’
“I slowly nodded to him and saw a very little smile.”
Eventually, the young boy and the other man who gave him the documents both received the death sentence.
Myo Aung was released in February 2009.
Bhamin Dhit is still in prison.
The three just looked at each other in the lineup.
Then, Thiha‘s hands were freed momentarily while being processed. The police had laid out a number of weapons seized from insurgents on a table nearby. He thought for a moment about grabbing one of those weapons and trying to escape.
“But I worried about the safety of the boy and my colleague, and whether the other prisoners would help by joining the escape attempt.”
The moment was gone.
Thiha and his fellow freedom fighters had just entered hell.
After being photographed and videotaped, the prisoners were separated.
Thiha was blindfolded and taken to a room where he sat across the table from a man who asked him in a quiet voice to reveal the location of weapons they suspected him of hiding.
He told the man he had no weapons. He said he had left them behind in the forest in Karen State.
He denied knowing the location of any weapons three times.
“Okay, take him to the dark room,” the man said to other officers in the room after the third denial.
He was removed to another room where he was examined by a doctor because of his high fever.
“He won’t die from malaria,” the doctor told the officers, although he had a temperature of 102 degrees.
He was handcuffed by the left arm to an iron ring about waist high on the wall in the dark room.
“They all left. I was alone, sitting on the floor. It was completely dark. I didn’t know if it was day or night,” he remembered.
“I was thinking about my three month old daughter and Pa and Ma and my friends. But, I knew it was no good to think. I have to face the torture.
“I will protect myself-my mind, soul and spirit-because I can’t protect my body.
“If I give in to fear I will lose my reputation. So, I will resist or my daughter and my family will have to live knowing that their father and their son was a traitor, and they would suffer because others would be arrested and tortured because of me.”
He said he was left in the dark room all that night and until the evening of the next day.
“They had not fed me since I arrived at the interrogation center. I was thirsty. So, I kicked the door and asked for water.
“They led me blindfolded and handcuffed to a small toilet down the hall. They opened the door and pushed me in, saying, ‘You can drink all the water you want.’
“I had no choice but to drink the water in the toilet.
“From that day onward, for more than a month, whenever I was thirsty they took me to drink from the water in the toilet.”
Later that night he was interrogated.
He was tied by his hands to a steel pole in the standing position while blindfolded.
He recognized the voice questioning him as being the man with the gentle voice who interrogated him the first night.
For more than two hours he was questioned about the names of relatives. There were no questions about weapons this time.
“He patted me on the shoulder and said in Burmese, ‘Your future will not be very pleasant. You really do not have a future.’”
Thiha was taken back to the dark room for another sleepless night.
On the third day, he was finally given a small cup off rice soup. And he was allowed to drink more toilet water.
That night the torture began.
He was tied again to a pole in the standing position. His head was covered by a hood.
Three or four Military Intelligence officers beat him for about an hour.
“At first they hit me with their fists on my face and in my ribs and stomach. When they untied my hands, I was bleeding from my nose and mouth.
“I was filled with tension from rage. They were cowards.
“‘Let me see you. I want to know who you are,’ I screamed at them. ‘It’s not a man’s work to beat somebody blindfolded.’
“They laughed at me.”
They untied his hands. But, then he felt a stick strike him across the shins and he fell to the floor.
“They kicked me all over, in the chest, back, hips and stomach.”
He was then taken to another room where he was seated on a stool with his hands handcuffed behind him.
They asked more questions about the location of weapons and his comrades.
He said he told them he didn’t know where any weapons were and all his comrades were back in Thailand.
They kicked him off the stool on to the floor and beat him and kicked him all over his body, before taking him back to the dark room.
“I thought, ‘Do humans act like this?’ They treated me like an animal. But, they were the animals. Are they human?”
He said he was losing his sense of time in the dark room, but could hear guards talking to each other out in the hall and could deduce if it was night or day.
“It was like a nightmare. After being beaten, I was numb. I didn’t know where I was.
“My mind was numb too. I didn’t go unconscious. I felt like I was floating in the air.”
The next morning he was taken to another interrogation center in a different location. He was fed rice and boiled egg, and given more toilet water.
That night they began to question him for about 24 hours, non-stop, with interrogators working in pairs for two hour shifts.
The questioning once again centered on weapons and comrades.
He was given no food and drank only toilet water.
“By that time the toilet water seemed very delicious because I needed water. I was in the same clothes I was arrested in. They were filthy. My whole body was sticky and sweaty and dirty.”
That night he learned about the torture method called “the cradle”.
He was suspended horizontally between two poles about waist high. He was blindfolded and faced upward toward the ceiling.
One Military Intelligence officer stood beside his head, pouring water on his face and slapping him in the face.
Meanwhile, two others took turns kicking him in the side and legs.
“I was choking. I could not breathe. And I swung back and forth between the two kicking me, like I was in a cradle.
“I wanted to scream. But, I controlled myself. I did not want to show them my fear and my rage. I swallowed my voice. I did not want them to think of me as a coward.”
He recalls using Buddhist meditation techniques to control his mind and to deal with the pain.
“It lasted about two hours, but I didn’t give them any new information. I only told them things they already knew.”
He said he drew on his previous experiences being tortured.
“I knew how to answer them. But, there wasn’t as much pain to deal with as the first two times. I knew if I gave them any information at all it would be worse for me because they would only torture me more. It’s better not to give them any information at all.”
He also benefited from the experience of other pro-democracy activists who had been tortured by the government before his time.
He said some of the politicians who were interrogated and tortured after the death of former UN Secretary-General U Thant in 1974 talked to him about it.
“They told me stories about how they were tortured when I was young. Now, it was my turn.”
During the torture the guards sometimes talked about him probably being given a death sentence.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to get a death sentence and die in the end, or, maybe they will kill me here while they torture me.
I am going to die in the end anyway so I’ll fight now and die with dignity now. I will not answer them.’”
He recalls hearing the guards trying to restrain each other because if they went too far with the torture and killed him, they would not get any information.
They were frustrated by his silence.
The torture continued for about a month as Thiha was transferred to various Military Intelligence and Special Branch Police interrogation centers.
“It was like I was a ball, kicked from one to the other.”
The game ended when the ball came to rest on Death Row at Insein Prison on March 7, 1991, following his brief trial.
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