Soe Naing had joined hundreds of student protesters in surrounding a government building in Tevoy City when Burmese soldiers began shooting at them. Just 17, Naing survived; 10 of his fellow demonstrators were killed. They were among thousands of civilians who died while rallying for political and economic reforms during Burma's September 1988 military coup. "We got the call to demand democracy and freedom, and human rights," says Naing, who lives in Carrboro. "We were demanding peacefully."
Nearly 20 years later, recent violence against pro-democracy demonstrators in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military-run government) has prompted members of Carrboro's Burmese refugee community, including Naing and Min Khaing, to form the Burma Action Committee. Shortly before the government crackdown began last August, 145 Burmese refugees have arrived in the Triangle, joining an estimated 200 to 500 living here. The group has demonstrated for reform in Burma and hopes to pressure U.S. lawmakers to support action against the military regime. Earlier this month, the Bush administration announced economic sanctions against Burma because of rampant human rights violations.
Naing sits in a Carrboro apartment with Khaing, who also fled the country in 1988. With dark eyes and a shaved head, Naing becomes angry, as he talks about Burma's history of repression.
After the 1988 shootings, the military quickly imposed martial law. Because of his involvement in the protests, he was targeted for arrest. Naing fled into the jungle along the Thailand-Burma border with thousands of other students escaping the military crackdown. He lived there for seven years.
In the jungle, Naing worked as an organizer with the student movement fighting federal troops who had penetrated the area. "We could not demand peacefully, so we had to fight," he says. Students traveled to villages on both sides of the border to discuss the conflict with Burma's military government. "We never fight in the villages," Naing says. "The villagers were like my family."
Beset by malaria, the students survived on bananas, papayas and what they could fish from local streams. Eventually, they farmed crops and received food from non-governmental organizations based in Thailand.
Naing left the jungle in 1995, crossing the border into Thailand to look for work. Homeless for nearly three months, he traveled to Bangkok, where the United Nations recognized Naing as a refugee. He volunteered in a UN health clinic for about a year before arriving in the United States as a refugee in 1996. He moved in 2000 to the Triangle, where Lutheran Family Services, which has a government contract to relocate refugees, helped him acclimate to his new life.
Naing knows little about the fate of his father and sister, except he received word from a friend in Thailand that they're still in Burma, and that his mother died in late summer. Nonetheless, he's formed tight friendships in Carrboro's Burmese community. "In the jungle and even here," says Naing, who works in a Chapel Hill restaurant, "we are like a big family, a big community."
Megan Tracy, regional manager with Lutheran Family Services of the Carolinas, says Burmese make up the largest refugee population in North Carolina and nationally. Her group helps them with critical needs—finding housing, receiving health care and enrolling their children in school—but also day-to-day tasks, from using bank accounts to riding the bus.
Tracy says most of the new arrivals came from the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, where some had lived for almost 20 years. But she says there are still many refugees living in camps in Thailand that don't want to resettle in another country: "They would much prefer to go home."
Min Khaing, his wife and daughter have not seen home in two decades. He too remembers fleeing the Burmese military in 1988. A student at a Rangoon monastery, Khaing joined the marches in Burma's capital. One afternoon, troops stopped the march, plowing into the crowd in their military vehicles, shooting at protesters.
Khaing and several students ran to the house where he lived; the owners hid them above the ceiling panels. Tucked away, Khaing heard shooting outside and later saw bodies lying in the street. The military drove through the streets retrieving the dead, and a fire truck followed not far behind, hosing away the blood.
"After one hour, there's nothing left on the street; no body, no blood, nothing left," Khaing says. "Like nothing happened here."
Khaing also fled into the jungle, where he joined the All Burma Student Democratic Front to fight the federal troops. Khaing worked as a medic in the jungle for 10 years, tending to the wounded and treating those ill with malaria.
After a decade, Burmese troops overran the jungle base used by Khaing and his "comrades," as he calls them, forcing Khaing to cross into Thailand. He spent three years in refugee camps in Bangkok before arriving in the United States as a refugee. He now works the graveyard shift as a housekeeper at UNC Chapel Hill.
Khaing says he hopes the international community will pressure Myanmar's military government to reform the country. If that doesn't work, he says he wants a "UN security force to go to enter Burma, maybe to take some military action to pressure" the government to talk with the opposition groups. "We need democracy and human rights," Khaing says, adding he doesn't think it can happen without outside intervention. "Burmese people must have freedom to choose their own government, democratic or military."