The quiet life of Manerplaw changed dramatically when the 88 Generation Students, along with various other democratic groups, went underground after the military crackdown on the 1988 popular upraising. We all joined hands with the ethnic minorities’ armies.
Ethnic minorities had become increasingly peripheral from mainstream politics in Burma, but after 88, they again came to the fore, and Manerplaw played a pivotal role—representing the headquarters of the decades-old Karen guerilla movement, the Karen National Union (KNU), and now also representing a symbolic headquarters of the overall democracy movement. Manerplaw was a “liberated area” under the alliance of political dissidents: the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), and other umbrella groups in later times, plus the exiled government, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), were all born from that narrow strip of land.
Since my days as a novice warrior in the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF), my memories of Manerplaw range from the bucolic to the terrifying—war is brutal and cruel.
The Burmese junta launched regular offensives against Manerplaw, especially after 1991. To this day, the scent of forest fires, the smell of humid air and the piercing noise of cicadas stir up memories of those days when I witnessed air and artillery attacks, disfigured corpses, the pain of the wounded, and the ghost-like town of Manerplaw at the height of a military offensive. Porters, forced at gun-point to aid the junta’s army, often escaped and journeyed through the mountains to reach our forces.
It was remarkable how the KNU forces held their own against the junta’s superior manpower and resources. As a recruit, I wanted to believe that Manerplaw could endure and be defended against all offensives—but it was wishful thinking.
The strategy of positional warfare today is a long-forgotten art, and armies never allow themselves to become bogged down in defense of a single fortress or position. Finally, in 1996, Manerplaw fell to the junta’s army, aided by Karen units that joined the other side.
While I was in the jungle, I read an article, possibly written by Martin Smith, that described Manerplaw as the “center stage” of Burmese politics in the early 1990s, since all media and international attention had focused upon the exodus of the students, the exiled provisional government and the unity, though short-lived, of the many ethnic groups under a single banner and field of combat.
The author went on to say that the center of Burma politics then shifted to No 54 University Avenue—the resident of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—after her release from house arrest in July 1995. Crowds would gather in front of her home, and she and her colleagues gave public speeches weekly, in defiance of martial law, until the next junta crackdown.
From time to time, I wonder where is the center of Burma’s dissident movement today?
I have no precise answer, but from my experience in Manerplaw, I learned something important. I saw the public gatherings in front of Daw Suu’s house and her defiance in term of military strategy, and I wanted the movement to spread beyond her home to NLD branches throughout Burma.
I had learned that single fortresses don’t last long. They can be effectively attacked and defeated. Even during the glory days of Manerplaw, some commanders and politicians argued with KNU leaders to spread out our forces from the fortification in order to strengthen our defense in accordance with the nature of guerilla warfare. It is a lesson the pro-democracy movement needs to take to heart.
The junta’s scheduled election in 2010 poses a new “positional” problem, especially in light of the 1990 election results, which, although a sweeping victory for the democracy movement, were never honored by the military.
Citizens voted from their hearts in 1990, for their aspirations for democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the election and many winning representatives of the NLD have since used the results to call for change in Burma—by demands in conventions, failed attempts to form provisional governments, founding the NCGUB government in exile, mocking the legitimacy of the junta by forming the Committee Representing Peoples’ Parliament (CRPP) and in other ways. In 2006, the NLD Special Statement called for the junta to convene a parliament to engage in political dialogue, and most recently it made a credential challenge of the junta representative at United Nations. continue page 2 http://www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=15316&page=2