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Los Angeles Times, Monday March 11
Subject: Los Angeles Times, Monday March 11 1996 Article 1 of 2
Burmese Press Their Cause Here
Los Angeles Times, Monday, March 11, 1996
Subhead: Resistance: Expatriates are becoming more organized and vocal in
their opposition to the military junta that rules their homeland. Living
with the memory of protesters slain in 1988, many toil at menial jobs while
campaigning for democracy.
By K. Connie Kang, Times Staff Writer
When KoLatt lies down to sleep in his modest room in Alhambra after a
long day's work as a packer, he often pictures the magnificent rain forests
and sun-drenched beaches of his beloved Burma.
More often than not, however, his memories of the lush jungles and
tranquil waters are pushed aside by another image--the bloodied faces of his
classmates, slaughtered by soldiers during the 1988 pro-democracy protest at
the University of Rangoon.
It is the remembrance of the 49 friends murdered before his eyes that
keeps KoLatt packing boxes by day and working the telephone and fax machine
"Because I'm alive, I owe it to them to continue the movement to free
Burma," said KoLatt, 32, his gentle demeanor belying a steely determination.
KoLatt belongs to a small but growing Burmese expatriate community of
about 10,000 in Southern California that is becoming more organized and
vocal in its resistance to the military junta in Myanmar.
Like KoLatt, many Burmese activists toil at menial jobs, beneath their
training and education, because they want more time to give to the cause.
They live together in cooperative arrangements to reduce expenses. And,
like KoLatt, their dream is to return to a democratic homeland.
For KoLatt, a slender man with a shock of black hair, his whole life
revolves around the lonely struggle. Awake or asleep, he says, Burma is on
"I love my country even more since I came to America," he said, adding:
"Please call it Burma, not Myanmar. That's the name the military gave to
try to fool the world."
KoLatt's readiness to make sacrifices for democracy is not an easy thing
for Americans to comprehend, says anthropologist Carol Richards, a Burma
specialist and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Burma Forum, an
organization that coordinates the movement in California. Most Americans
take freedom for granted because they haven't had to make life and death
choices for democracy, she said.
Democracy is a guiding power by which KoLatt lives.
"Every decision KoLatt makes, including the one to talk to The Times, is
based on whether it will benefit the people of Burma," said Richards, who
has worked closely with him for the past five years.
"Ironically, every decision he makes to help Burma takes him one further
step from going back home--another clang of the door closing."
KoLatt, a devout Buddhist, is not afraid.
On his chest, he wears a button with a picture of his hero, Aung San Suu
Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991
while she was under house arrest.
It reminds him: "Fear is a habit. I am not afraid. Free Suu. Free Burma."
And, on his back, he wears a shirt that says:
I am wounded,
But I am not dead as yet.
Let me down
and let me bleed a while.
I will rise and fight again.
The 1988 military crackdown forced KoLatt and thousands of pro-democracy
proponents to flee. Most live as refugees on Myanmar's borders with
Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China, where many of Burma's indigenous
peoples also dwell.
Others managed to get away to Japan, Europe and North America, where they
maintain an international network that stretches from Los Angeles to Tokyo
and New York to Paris.
They are succored by non-Burmese human rights activists, such as
Richards, who befriend and help them overcome the barriers of language,
culture and institutions and offer Western know-how.
In the United States alone, more than 80 campus and community groups
support the Burmese movement.
A focus of their campaign has been Unocal, the Los Angeles-based energy
company, and its prominent role in building a $1 billion pipeline in Myanmar.
Critics say the pipeline will enrich the illegitimate regime, plunder one
of the largest remaining tropical rain forests and disperse villagers along
its route--charges denied by Unocal.
"We are trying to speak for the people who cannot speak," KoLatt said.
He said forced labor is being used on the project--a charge denied by Unocal.
"It's an uphill battle because giant corporations, such as Unocal, have
all the resources," says Richards. "We're just volunteers trying to bring
the issue to public light."
A boycott campaign against Unocal gas stations and demonstrations in
front of the company headquarters are part of the pro-democracy campaign here.
Much that goes on, however, is unseen--a vigil of nameless people
reaching across geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries.
The work is risky for Burmese nationals.
Despite the 10,000 miles that separate him and Burma, KoLatt feels the
long arm of the State Law and Order Restoration council, or SLORC, a panel
of soldiers who rule the country now known as Myanmar.
Informants watch his movements, have his picture taken at demonstrations
and monitor his mail and phone calls to Myanmar, he said.
Officials with the Myanmar Embassy did not respond to Times requests for
comment on the allegations or the activities of the resistance movement.
His activities have made relatives back home targets of government
"Sometimes agents show up [at their home] after midnight to check who is
sleeping under the mosquito nets," he said.
When KoLatt called his sister earlier this year, she told him not to
contact her again, he said.
Since the former student leader eluded authorities in the fall of 1988,
his activist brother was imprisoned and his mother died of a heart attack
after visiting her youngest son in prison. Soon afterward, his father fell
ill and died. And his oldest brother, a physician, has been missing ever since.
KoLatt's career is on hold, too, because his homeland comes first.
Though KoLatt studied botany at the prestigious University of Rangoon, he
cannot consider moving on from his $55-a-day job because he has to take so
much time off from work.
Where would he find another employer who'd let him work when he can? he asks.
Though his blood family in Myanmar is all but gone, KoLatt has found
spiritual kinfolk in a Burmese couple in Alhambra.
KoLatt met Khin Maung Shwe and Taw Myo Myint in the jungles after his
escape, when he was ill with malaria. They nursed him back to health.
When Maung and Taw, who also were active in the 1988 anti-government
protests, came to the United States, KoLatt followed them.
Today, their Alhambra home is both a center for what they call "Our
Movement for Democracy," and home away from home for unmarried Burmese who
gather to share food and to work for a better day.
The couple's American-born daughter, Stephanie, 4, is everyone's niece.
Maung, a former manager of the state-run Salt Industry Corp., now works
nights as a chemical technician so he can work the phone and fax machine and
The advent of the Internet has made it easier to communicate with
activists inside Myanmar when they slip out to the Myanmar-Thailand border.
Maung and KoLatt cannot afford a computer, so they rely on Richards and
International phone calls, faxes, printing leaflets and posters drain
their limited budgets. But they persist.
Their efforts appear to be paying off.
The cities of Santa Monica, Berkeley and Madison, Wis., have banned
contracts with companies doing business in Myanmar. UCLA will no longer
sponsor its "Burma Passage" tour. USC's Student Academic Senate has
unanimously condemned USC Alumni's "Road to Mandalay" tour and is urging the
alumni group to do likewise.
Some American businesses, including Levi Strauss, Macy's, Eddie Bauer and
Liz Clairborne [sic] have pulled out of Myanmar.
But the formidable target is Unocal.
Unocal, Total, a Paris-based oil company, and a Thai firm are partners
with Myanmar in the Yadana pipeline project that would transfer natural gas
"The pipeline is the centerpiece of the regime's economic development
plan," says Richards.
By going ahead with the project, activists charge that Unocal is, in
effect, in partnership with the brutal government and helping it to remain
Not true, said Unocal spokesman David Garcia, emphasizing that the
company stays out of Myanmar's internal affairs.
Garcia, who visited Myanmar in January, accused critics and the press of
ignoring "positive benefits" of the project.
For example, he said, villagers along the pipeline welcome a chance to
become economically self-sufficient.
In Mawgyi, 75 villagers in January completed a 2.3-acre shrimp farm with
the money provided by Unocal and its partners, Garcia said.
"Reception to our programs has been very positive," Garcia said.
Meanwhile, SLORC is tightening its rein on Aung San Suu Kyi, activists say.
"Immediately after her release, there was much euphoria and attention of
the international press, but in the last few weeks, the government has
tightened its rein on her," said Burma Forum co-founder Louisa Benson,
quoting her contacts in Myanmar.
"The government realizes that information is power, and people listen to
what Aung San Suu Kyi has to say. They are limiting people who can visit
her, including U.S. congressional staffers."
There has been a flurry of bad news from Myanmar, activists say.
When Maung, whose parents and six siblings live in Myanmar, recently
called home, he was told not to call again.
The prospect of losing contact with his family is heartbreaking, he said.
But his wife, Taw, said the couple reconfirmed their vow to the movement
by remembering: "Forty million Burmese are more important than one family."
A proof of the couple's conviction is their daughter, who participates in
all the protests with her parents.
Instead of nursery rhymes, Stephanie chants, "Democracy is our duty," and
"Unocal out of Burma."
Dressed in a longyi--a Burmese sarong--Stephanie hands out leaflets and
recites slogans at every event.
Even stern-looking passersby are charmed when Stephanie walks up to them,
and hands them a leaflet with a big smile on her innocent face.
1) Front page of Metro Section: "Expatriate KoLatt, who survived 1988
massacre, wears T-shirt with a statement on behalf of the resistance against
military junta." [KoLatt faces away from camera]
2) Front page of Metro Section: "Stephanie Htet Taw, 4, hands out leaflets
at Unocal Corp. headquarters in L.A." [Stephanie, in foreground, has back to
camera as three men in suits approach her. She wears a green and yellow
3) Page B3: "At a shrine in his home, KoLatt prays for those living under
military rule. He is part of a growing expatriate community here."
4) Page B3: "Khin Maung Shwe, daughter Stephanie, 4, and wife Taw Myo Myint
with poster of patriot Aung San Suu Kyi."
Los Angeles Campaign for a Free Burma
"In political tactics there are such things as dialogue and so
forth, but in our military science, there is no such thing as
dialogue. Someone may say, 'Look, friend, please don't shoot.'
Well, that is not the way it works."
-- Saw Maung, Fmr. SLORC Chairman.
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