BBC TwoThis World


Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 14:49 GMT
Burmese protesters now in exile
By Andrew Harding
BBC Asia correspondent, Thailand

Ashin Kovida
Buddhist monk Ashin Kovida, 24, played a leading role in the protests
Burmese activists are still streaming across the land border into Thailand after weeks on the run, following September's popular uprising and the violent military crackdown.

Mae Sot is a dowdy, crowded border town, trapped between a sluggish river and a steep green range of hills.

Most people in Mae Sot seem to be hiding from something - or someone.

There are the factory owners, with their sweatshops full of underpaid, unregistered labourers, discretely churning out jeans and lingerie for the international market.

There are the many tens of thousands of impoverished Burmese workers, who have slipped across the border into Thailand, hoping to earn a few dollars in those same factories before the police round them up and dump them back on the far side of the river.

Buddhist Monks protest in Rangoon on 24 September 2007
These protests echo unrest in 1988, also sparked by economic woes
There are the refugees - ethnic Karens whose villages have been wiped out by the Burmese army - sneaking out of their cramped and guarded border camps outside town to hunt for work or to seek medical treatment.

And there are the dissidents. Ever since Burma's last uprising in 1988, Burmese democracy activists have been using Mae Sot as a safe haven - crossing the bridge with false documents, or risking the landmines along the border to steal across unseen. Trading a life on the run, for a life in exile.

Race for safety

Today those exiles have been joined by a new influx of angry, exhausted protesters - those who took part in September's uprising, and managed to evade the ruthlessly efficient dragnet of Burma's security forces.

Construction worker Soe Naing Naing
Construction worker Soe Naing Naing joined the Rangoon protests
Soe Naing Naing, a construction worker, described his sudden decision to join the protests.

"We knew," he said, "that if we lost this battle we would be brutally crushed."

But the violent crackdown led to a frantic race for safety.

In the past few weeks, Burmese monks, civil servants, businessmen and school teachers have all made the long, tense bus journey, through endless military checkpoints, from Burma's capital, Rangoon, to the border and over into Thailand.

Secretive world

They have quickly been welcomed into Mae Sot's secretive world - hiding with other veteran exiles in anonymous compounds behind locked gates.

They've already killed some of the monk leaders. They beat and killed them. Many of them died in prison because of all the torture.
Ashin Kovida, Burmese monk
Some are convinced that Burmese snipers might try to shoot them from across the border. Others talk of Burmese secret agents sent in to grab them. Most simply fear they will be rounded up on the street by the Thai police in their daily hunt for unregistered workers, and sent back to join their colleagues in a Rangoon jail.

Ashin Kovida, a 24-year-old monk who played a leading role in September's euphoric street protests, crossed the Thai border on 18 October, but is still worried about his security. Video footage shows him rallying the crowds in central Rangoon - urging them to make a stand against dictatorship.

"If I go back, they'll arrest me," he says, from a safe house in Mae Sot.

"They've already killed some of the monk leaders. They beat and killed them. Many of them died in prison because of all the torture."

U Pan Cha, a fiery Sikh businessman, refuses to leave his room in Mae Sot during the day, in case he is discovered and deported. "I cannot express my feelings about leaving Burma. I was a dead man there," he says.

Uncertain future

A monk kneels in front of the police during the protests
Hundreds of troops and riot police moved in to quell further protests
As the protesters settle into the slow, frustrating life of the exile, all the new arrivals are now pondering their next steps - personal and political.

Most do not know whether they should register as refugees, try for asylum in a third country, or simply lie low and cling to the hope that circumstances will soon allow them to return to Burma.

But those who fled have carried with them the belief that Burma's latest uprising is not over - that the sacrifices of the last months have not been wasted.

Moe Hlaing, a teacher and activist, insists that democracy will triumph in Burma. "Perhaps in two years," he says, hopefully.

For construction worker Soe Naing Naing, there is no way back.

"When an ordinary citizen like me becomes interested in politics, the Junta's oppression is no longer just oppression. They are training us to become politicians ourselves."

This World: Inside Burma's Uprising will be broadcast on Monday 12 November 2007 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific