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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 17:45 GMT
Hidden life of Burma's opposition
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Bangkok

Novice monks walk through Rangoon (24/12/2007)
Nilar has been hiding in Rangoon since last year's protests
In a small, windowless room somewhere in Rangoon, a 35-year-old woman called Nilar Thein is wrestling with an unusual dilemma.

For the past four months, she has been on the run, scrambling between safe-houses, trying to keep a step ahead of the Burmese authorities as they hunt for the ringleaders of last September's protests.

Most of those in hiding have already been tracked down and imprisoned, but somehow Nilar has managed to evade capture.

"I'm very careful about my safety," she said, speaking on a mobile phone. She changes numbers regularly.

"I've found kind families who really helped me. It's thanks to them that I am still free. Still, I've had many narrow escapes."

But as the weeks slip by Nilar faces a growing quandary.

I don't see myself hiding like this forever. I'm just waiting for the right moment
Should she remain in hiding indefinitely, or should she try to spearhead a new protest campaign against the Burmese authorities - a move almost guaranteeing her a lengthy prison sentence.

In many ways, Nilar's predicament is shared by the internal opposition movement as a whole, as it struggles to regroup after last year's dramatic street protests and the violent crackdown which followed.

"I feel inadequate when I hear that one of my colleagues has been arrested for their activities. I get quite depressed that I cannot go out and do as they did," said Nilar.

"My friends tell me not to get carried away by my emotions. We all decided who would go out and who would stay.

"There are many things that I can do while in hiding. But I don't see myself hiding like this forever. I'm just waiting for the right moment."

Child at risk

Nilar's position is complicated - to put it mildly - by her unusual family circumstances.

Her husband Kyaw Min Yu - also known as Jimmy - is already in Rangoon's notorious Insein jail.

Kyaw Min Yu (L) and members of the 88 Generation Students group (file photo)
Nilar's husband Kyaw Min Yu (L) has spent 16 years in jail

He was arrested on 21 August after taking part in the very first street protests triggered by an overnight increase in the price of fuel.

"I get messages, indirectly, from him in jail," Nilar explained.

"He is in good health. But sometimes I feel so sad I want to go to prison just to see him."

As veteran members of Burma's 88 Generation Students - a pro-democracy group named after the last major uprising in 1988 - Nilar and Jimmy are both familiar with their country's penal system.

Between them they have spent 24 years in jail - Jimmy 16 years, Nilar eight.

There is tight security around my daughter now. The authorities are still hoping I will come to see her

In 2006, they decided to get married, and in April last year Nilar gave birth to a daughter, Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu.

When Nilar went into hiding at the end of August, she initially took Phyu with her.

But the risks for both proved too great.

Once, while hiding in an attic, Nilar heard the police downstairs.

"I told my daughter - my dear, please don't make a noise. If you want to stay with mummy, please do not make any noise. I was breastfeeding her. She looked at me as if she understood the whole situation, and did not make a sound."

After that incident, Nilar decided to leave Phyu with her in-laws.

"There is tight security around my daughter now. The authorities are still hoping I will come to see her."

She believes they are using her daughter as a trap.

In prison, Jimmy is able to receive occasional visits from his daughter. But in hiding, Nilar has no direct contact whatsoever.

"[Sometimes it seems like] those in prison have better lives than us," she mused.

"They can leave their cells for walks, and see their families. I hear from friends that my daughter has grown so much. They told me how she giggled.

I'm in a place where I cannot see the sun, or be touched by the wind. But it could be much worse

"But a baby should be under the close care of her own parents. I really want to be with my family - the three of us together."

Nilar spends her days waiting and planning, and her nights fighting with bronchitis and asthma attacks.

She has not stepped outside for more than a month, but may soon have to move to another location.

She says her years in solitary confinement have helped her cope with the isolation.

"I'm in a place where I cannot see the sun, or be touched by the wind," she said. "But it could be much worse."

Useful role

There are now other activists with her in hiding, but she does not want to give their names for security reasons.

"The only problem is if we fall ill. We cannot go out to see a doctor. But all of us have spent time in prison so we are used to the conditions."

Monks demonstrating in Rangoon, 25/10
At least 31 people died in the protests led by monks in 2006

Once, when an earlier hideout was surrounded by the authorities, Nilar managed to slip out of a side door and flag down a rickshaw taxi.

"When I glanced round, I saw a man with a walkie-talkie chasing me on a bicycle. I hid behind my umbrella." Luckily for her the rickshaw was quicker, and she managed to escape.

There is every chance I will be captured, but until that moment I will do what I must

For now, Nilar insists she can still play a useful role in hiding.

"I don't think I am isolated at the moment, or sidelined. Many top leaders have been captured but I am in touch with all those who are still in the movement.

"We have contact and co-ordination. I have no plan to go abroad or into exile. If you hold on to your beliefs, you can overcome anything."

But after decades in power, Burma's military government is showing no signs of buckling under international or internal pressure.

Like the bruised opposition movement as a whole, Nilar acknowledges that she may soon be obliged to come out of hiding to challenge the junta once more.

"I have thought about it and prepared for that moment," she said calmly.

"There is every chance I will be captured, but until that moment I will do what I must."

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