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It was May 2003 and a young law student named Kyaw Soe Lin was on a very special mission. As an organiser and legal aid for the National League for Democracy, he had been given the job of driving Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her tour of the country. And as the stretch of detention that began in the bloody aftermath of this event comes to an end, DVB spoke exclusively to the driver at a house in Mandalay.
Suu Kyi had only been free for about a year when she set off from Rangoon. Her tour with other NLD members, including party secretary U Tin Oo, would take in the hoards of disenfranchised voters who had backed her and her party in such numbers 13 years prior.
The trip began in mid-April and the first stop was Monywa. As it progressed, the convoy received minor harassment from stone-throwing thugs and other intimidating behaviour.
But as it drove from Moegaw in Sagaing division back to Mandalay on 29 May, the first signs of real trouble came. What followed was a political crime of terrible proportions and a harrowing indictment of the newly-victorious Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
On 29 May, Kyaw Soe Lin recalls that the convoy came under attack from stones and catapults, with a number of NLD members left injured. Despite this, it continued and made it to Mandalay. The next day the party headed to Depayin district, and as they passed through the small village of Kyiwa, up ahead in the road were two monks who stopped the convoy, asking if Suu Kyi could address a gathering.
“I told Aunty [Aung San Suu Kyi] that we shouldn’t stop as we usually get harassed around dusk time. But the monks said they have been waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi since the evening before and requested that she give them a speech and greet them. They were two elderly monks sitting and waiting, so Aunty said we should stop for them.”
The two monks turned out to be imposters, and as the car stopped for Suu Kyi to consider the proposal, the wrath of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a civilian proxy of the military, was turned upon the convoy.
That day some 70 NLD members were killed by thugs from the party who last week committed perhaps the greatest fraud the country has known.
“When we stopped the convoy, [NLD] youth securities surrounded our car…and we were informed by the NLD members who protected our rear that a mob, including fake monks armed with sticks and other melee weapons, were approaching us in four or five buses,” said Kyaw Soe Lin.
“Then we heard they were attacking our convey and the villagers waiting for us. Then they came to us and started beating people up – some villagers and our members at the scene fought back. But Aunty told them not to retaliate. The attackers, clad in monk robes, arrived at our car carrying sticks and blades. They were all wearing white armbands. They started beating – their way of attack wasn’t actually chaotic but quite tactical/”
As they came under attack, Kyaw Soe Lin pleaded with the mob, protesting that The Lady was in the car. This made no difference, and, he suspects, probably only encouraged the mob, whom it is thought were trying to assassinate the Nobel laureate. And if it weren’t for Kyaw Soe Lin, it could have been that Daw Suu’s fate would have mirrored that of her father, General Aung San. He was gunned down in a political assassination in Rangoon in 1947, shortly after gaining independence for Burma.
“They carried on attacking the car and beat to death the youths [NLD members] protecting it,” he said, eyes twitching with the tension of the heinous memory. “Some just collapsed right on the spot.
“My anger then exploded and I was going to run over the attackers with the car. I stomped on the lever three times and reversed the car. The attackers had slipped a wooden stick into the car – I didn’t know when they did it. The stick was jamming the steering mechanism so that the car would flip when driven forward and it would look just like an accident. So I reversed the car and the wooden stick broke. It was stuck between a wheel and another part.
“As I reversed, they broke the windows on my side and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s side, and also on the side where Ko Htun Zaw Zaw was sitting next to me. They also broke the car’s headlights and the back mirrors were shredded to pieces. The car’s body was also smashed up.”
He tells the story in the gloom of a rainy Mandalay evening, lights flickering above. “I reversed but then I saw our youth members and the students who came with us all lying on the ground and I was worried that I’d run them over too. So I drove away to avoid them. We went a bit forward in the car and saw that three other trucks were blocking the road. I told Aunty there was something wrong with the car and drove towards them without turning away. The trucks looked like six-wheel Hino trucks.
“I pulled onto the side of the road when we were really close to those cars and slipped past them, only to reach to the area the attackers had designated as the “kill zone”. There were about 30 trucks with their headlights shining behind the attackers, who were armed with sticks.”
“There were about 200 or 300 people dressed in USDA uniforms holding posters. The attackers were so many.
“As our car got near there, they watched us in surprise. There were [NLD security] clinging onto the sides of our car and I worried that the attackers might pull them off if they got near us. So I pretended I was going to run into the crowd and they scattered away. Then I pulled the car back up onto the road and kept on driving. Then we saw there were road blocks set up all the way across the road. I knew that we all, including Aunty, would die if we didn’t leave there, so I kept on driving.”
As he drove through the mob, objects were hurled at the car, smashing more of the remaining windows and hitting him. But he drove on.
“Aunty asked me if I was okay. I said I was fine and kept on driving; if I stopped at the blockage, they’d beat us to death. So I ran over it and found that there was another layer of trucks blocking the way about four to five feet after the blockage. There was a gap left between the cars and I drove through there – luckily the car fitted right in the space. Then there was a line of policemen with their guns pointed at the car. I went through them but didn’t hit anyone, as they jumped to the side. As I drove on, I saw people with guns that looked like soldiers. Aunty said we should only stop when we reach Depayin.”
But Kyaw Soe Lin was lost, and having never been to Depayin before, didn’t know the route. Soon he stopped in a forest to try and mend the vehicle, which was packed with fellow NLD members, including The Lady. After making improvised repairs, he drove on and came to the town of Yea-U. But as he entered the town, security personnel stopped the vehicle and asked who was in the car. They were told to wait, and about half an hour later a large number of military personnel arrived.
“They came out carrying guns and surrounded us. About 15 minutes later, an army official – apparently a battalion commander – arrived and put a gun to my temple and asked us to go with them. Aunty nodded us to go, so we did. We were taken to Yea-U jail.
“We got there around 9pm and saw people apparently giving witness accounts of the incident. They were all wearing the same armbands worn by the attackers. Aunty told the police and intelligence officials there that she would cooperate with them if they promised to abide by legal procedures; otherwise they would just kill us all if they wanted. They promised to abide by the law and took Aunty with them.
“I was held for two days at the Yea-U detention centre”; two days in which the authorities intentionally denied Kyaw Soe Lin and his comrades food, only giving them water. After two days he was transferred to Shwebo prison and thrown in with the common criminals. He said that he was given worse food than the thieves and rapists who were now his co-habitants.
Soon he was on the move again – hooded and shackled, he was driven to a plane and flown to Hkamti.
“When we reached Hkamti, we were not fed. In the evening, they took away the egg and good rice given us from Shwebo jail, saying that they would feed us in the evening. They gave us a handful of un-husked rice with rotting fish paste which some people could not eat. Some people vomited.”
They were kept there and soon the interrogation began. They were told to say that the people in the villages who had welcomed them had been the ones who attacked the convoy. This, needless to say, they refused because, as Kyaw Soe Lin points out, the tour was officially sanctioned. “We took this trip in harmony with them [the authorities]. For this reason, if they beat us, let them do it; if they killed us, we have to die, she said to us. Because of that, we did not say what they wanted us to say.”
On refusal of their demands to cover up the violent political intimidation, the authorities began the torture, “stripped naked and candle wax dropped all over the body,” he recounts. “They forced us to sit on our haunches and one after another, kicked us like a football. The face was kicked too. And as soon as they entered the detention centre, they punch your face with fists. This is not a special detention centre’s interrogation – they carried out the torture because I drove Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car. I was deliberately tortured.”
He continues in harrowing detail: “They had drunk before interrogating us. They stank of alcohol as they tortured us. And having tortured us, they went away again. Then they threatened us – they said they will electrify us; will keep us in the pouring rain. Not me alone, but all of those with me were beaten up. The sounds of ‘I am scared’ and smashing – I heard these. It wasn’t that painful when I was beaten up; it was more painful in my heart when [other people] were beaten.”
The appalling conditions were also part of the punishment. “My detention cell was slightly higher than standing height. On the floor, because it is rainy season, water was above knee-level. You can’t sleep, can’t sit. They handcuffed us behind our back from the day we arrived, and it lasted this way for exactly a month, day and night. They also came to interrogate at midnight and in the morning, and for the whole day.”
His detention was ‘only’ six months as there was no crime. This was not a judicial detention in any sense of the word; they couldn’t even conjure a vague law to detain the members of the convoy.
But like so many prisoners of conscience, Kyaw Soe Lin’s troubles did not end with his release. “When I came out of the prison, I resumed my studies. But they were following from behind relentlessly when I attended classes. Then I told one intelligence agent that we were doing nothing bad, nothing improper. ‘You released me because I am innocent. As it is so, I do not like the way you are stalking me now’, I said. Only then did they stop following me from behind. There was some stalking but no other harassment.”
He adds that it took him years longer than a normal law student to receive his licence to practice.
And so as Suu Kyi is finally released after more than seven years under house arrest, the immense injustice that she is fighting is almost visible on the troubled face of one of the closest witnesses to the harrowing events that put her back in detention in 2003, Kyaw Soe Lin.
And as the authorities – perhaps in an effort to divert attention from their fraudulent election and to appease a rightfully sceptical international community – release their most famous prisoner, that reconciliation and justice will be hard to find where impunity springs eternal from the hands of the military to its chosen minions.
“All those beaten up were imprisoned, but for those who carried out the beating, not one. No one knows who was behind the attack. And in the prison, we were beaten up for one reason or another. It was a deliberate way to torture. It is not like interrogation, just torture.”