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NEWS- Cornered, Former Students Fig

Cornered, Former Students Fight for Democracy in Burma


               DAWN GWIN CAMP, Thai-Burma Border
               (AP) A decade ago they were among
               Burma's best and brightest, young
               idealists on the road to becoming lawyers,
               engineers and doctors in what they
               dreamed would be a democratic society. 

               In that year of revolt, 1988, student
               activists manned the front lines in the
               attempt to bring down entrenched military
               rule. Some fell to bullets and bayonets.
               Others were tortured and imprisoned. And
               some fled to remote frontier areas to carry
               on the fight. 

               Today, the hard-core remnants are just
               hanging on. They live in disease-ridden
               jungle camps, dependent on foreign
               donors and the fickle sympathies of Thai
               officials. Although dedication to the cause
               remains strong, their road seems headed
               for a dead end. 

               "Some revolutions are long-term, but we
               believe that all dictators must fall. So we
               will never give up our objectives or
               beliefs," said Sai Myint Thu, a one-time
               chemical engineering student and now a
               leader in the All Burma Students
               Democratic Front. 

               Many have in fact given up. Originally
               10,000-strong, the Democratic Front
               fighting force has dwindled to 1,700. And
               some among these hope for asylum in the

               The international focus isn't on these
               forlorn guerrillas but rather on Aung San
               Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and
               Nobel Peace Prize-winner locked in an
               indecisive struggle with Burma's military
               rulers in the capital, Rangoon. Her portrait
               hangs inside many of the guerrillas' huts. 

               Camp life is hard, sometimes lethal. The
               rebel movement's headquarters, once
               inside Burma, has been forced to relocate
               seven times in the past three years under
               attack from Burmese troops. Several
               hundred former students have been killed.

               Now, the headquarters is just inside Thai
               territory in the rugged northwestern
               province of Mae Hong Son. 

               The Dawn Gwin camp, housing 160
               rebels, is a collection of thatch and
               bamboo huts on a jungled hillside. Almost
               inaccessible by vehicle during the rainy
               season, the area is rife with malaria and
               other diseases. Food and medicine,
               provided by Western humanitarian
               groups, are basic. Loneliness and fatalism

               No longer devil-may-care students, most
               of the fighters are now men in their late
               20s or early 30s who haven't been able
               marry. Only 10 percent of Dawn Gwin's
               residents are women, some trying to raise
               a new generation in the jungle. 

               "I won't return to see my homeland and my
               family until there is democracy in Burma. I
               may die in action," Thant Zin Oo said

               Like most of the guerrillas, he hasn't had
               contact with his family since 1988. 

               Their blueprint for a future Burma is not be
               detailed and the jargon of leftist causes is
               sometimes used. But the aims are clear:
               an end to 35 years of military rule, free
               elections, reconciliation between ethnic
               Burmans and the country's many ethnic

               The Democratic Front operates out of nine
               camps, seven along the Thai border and
               one each on the Chinese and Indian

               They mingle with more than 150,000 other
               refugees, mainly from ethnic minority
               groups that once battled Burma's
               government seeking autonomy. 

               The Burmese army has forged cease-fires
               with most of the groups, leaving the Karen
               National Union as the only major military
               opposition and one the ex-students still
               depend on for weapons and protection. 

               Thailand plays a chameleon-like role.
               Officially it maintains good relations with
               Burma's government, and the rebels are
               sometimes harassed, jailed or forced to
               pay bribes. Yet, the Thai government
               allows rebel camps and offices on its
               territory, and some officials are openly

               The rebellion has been hampered from
               the beginning by its division into a welter
               of resistance movements. Although they
               nominally operate under the umbrella of a
               self-styled government-in-exile, the
               National Coalition Government of the
               Union of Burma, the groups have never
               forged a unified command. 

               "Some governments and NGOs would
               prefer to deal with and support one united
               group. They are confused," said Sai Myint
               Thu, the Democratic Front leader, sitting
               on a bamboo bench outside his makeshift

               Night falls and parents teach their children
               Burmese reading by candlelight. The
               clatter of an old typewriter is replaced by
               the sounds of the enveloping forest, and

               "I am a rock, I am an island," someone
               sings the Simon and Garfunkel song,
               along with other protest anthems of the
               1960s. It lends an aura of the past to a
               place where the words "comrades" and
               "revolution" are often heard. 

               The onetime students, some of whom
               count battered guitars among their only
               possessions, have composed four
               cassettes worth of songs about
               democracy, patriotism and suffering. 

               "Like a little bird deprived of a license to
               fly," one goes. "Though full-fledged, our
               lives are little appreciated. We're just
               young outcasts."