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Four Just Men of Pathein (Asiaweek)


November 10, 2000

Four Just Men of Pathein

While the generals post golf titles, real honor belongs to those in
the gulag

Recently I was in Pathein (pop. 150,000), Myanmar's fourth-largest
city. I wanted to go there because I had already been to the nation's
three other major centers -- Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyine --
and also because it receives relatively few visitors from the outside
world. I thought it would give me an unblemished glimpse of provincial
life in Myanmar. As the crow flies, Pathein is only 150 km west of
Yangon, but the road is narrow and potholed and, when I went, made
worse by monsoon rains. The drive took a bone-jarring five-and-a-half

Checked into the Pathein Hotel, I strolled over to the clubhouse of
the adjacent golf course. There the preponderance of military names
on the honors boards intrigued me. In 1984, the Captain's Cup was
won by Brig.-Gen. Than Shwe, then the Pathein-based southwest
regional commander, and now -- as Senior General -- Myanmar's
supreme leader. Winner in 1998 was Brig.-Gen. Shwe Mann, the
current regional commander. Other names were Gen. Saw Maung,
junta head before Than Shwe, and current deputy prime minister,
Maj.-Gen. Tin Hla.

Absent from the honors boards were Nyunt Hlaing, Hla Kyi, Tin
Chaw and Kyaw Min. On May 27, 1990, these four Pathein members
of the National League for Democracy were elected to parliament.
But, like the other 388 victorious members of the NLD, led by
Aung San Suu Kyi, they were not allowed to take their seats. Of
Nyunt Hlaing, now 55, I knew little. He had won a scholarship to
study in the Soviet Union. After returning home he earned a
master's degree in "fishery," understandable perhaps in this river
town. He worked at Mandalay University before entering politics
through his trade union activities, which led to his arrest in 1988
and from which he was forced to retire a year later. I daresay his
name will never go on this honors board.

Shortly before I went to Pathein, I had paid a one-day visit to
Mandalay, partly for the opening ceremony of the northern city's
new international airport. Unfortunately our chartered flight arrived
late and we entered a deserted terminal. Two jumbos flew in for the
occasion, from Thai Airways and All Nippon Airways; but neither
international  airline, nor any other, plans to use the new facility.

Of course, some international airlines will eventually stop at
historic Mandalay. But Tin Chaw, 65, is as likely to travel with
them as he is to take his seat as the duly elected member for
the constituency of West Pathein 1. He is a former school
principal,  and until he joined the NLD and entered politics 12
years ago, was head of the West Pathein Education Department.
Still, he may take some comfort from the reopening of the
University of Pathein. On the evening I was there, students
crowded the teashops near the campus gates, chatting, reading,
flirting and listening to noisy music as students everywhere do.
I, too, had been listening to some special music just before I
went to Mandalay. At the Thailand Cultural Center in Bangkok,
the visiting Novosibirsk Theater of Opera and Ballet had put on
a stunning performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, one of
my all-time favorite compositions. After the finale, the audience
gave the company a standing ovation.

Sadly, Kyaw Min, 66, will never see such a concert. Soon after
his election victory in the West Pathein 2 constituency, the
American-trained architect and former lecturer at Yangon's Institute
of Technology was detained by the authorities. Released a year
later, he was arrested again in 1996 and placed in Yangon's
notorious Insein Jail, along with several other NLD colleagues.
For him,  unheard melodies must, we hope, remain sweeter.

At the time I attended the Novosibirsk company's performance,
I was midway through reading a fabulous new book, In Siberia,
by Colin Thubron. It is an account of his 24,000-km journey
across Siberia and has a section on Novosibirsk. I recommend it
to anyone who thinks there are no new frontiers. But it is not a
book Hla Kyi, 55, is ever likely to read. Winner of the East
Pathein 2 seat, he remains the NLD's treasurer and chief organizer
for the Ayeyarwady Division around Pathein. Hla Kyiwas taken away
by the authorities on Sept. 27 and his whereabouts are  unknown,
says colleague Maung Maung Gyi (a 78-year-old MP-elect, himself
only recently released from 18 months' detention).

This is Myanmar's gulag: NLD members disappear and their families
are not told where they are for days or weeks, and then they have
only  very limited access to them. But we must hope that one day
soon these four just men of Pathein will be able to take their seats
as elected members of parliament. And that they will be able to read
and travel and listen to music like other civilized people.