A story by a former political prisoner, set on the other side of the thick green line that ruled Myanmar for fifty years. After waging war in the ethnic states, it is in the then-capital, Yangon, during the 1988 national uprising, where soldier Nyo Aung is compelled to question the authority of those above and accept responsibility for his own.
By LETYAR TUN | FRONTIER
The soldiers sat knee to knee in the back of a patrol truck heading into the capital.
“How did the rebels get to Yangon?” asked one of the privates.
“Who are they?” muttered another, nervously picking at his newly starched uniform.
The platoon leader looked at his men. “BCP. Burma Communist Party, that’s what we used to call them.”
A private next to Nyo Maung poked him in the ribs, interrupting his thoughts. “You really think these guys are BCP?”
Nyo Maung didn’t answer; neither did he listen to the chatter as the convoy continued downtown.
The name Burma Communist Party took Nyo Maung back. All things pass, but not the past. Throughout his 30 years of service in the “Exalted Military”, Tatmadaw, he’d been indoctrinated against the BCP, more than enough to hate them. He’d heard all about their unbelievable atrocities and the bloody purges in the Bago Highlands – or what historians called the “3Ds” of denunciation, dismissal and disposal – where they had beaten deposed comrades to death with bamboo sticks. And now, so close to retirement, he had to face them once again.
He’d enlisted at 16 and was sent to Basic Military Training School No 1. He and his fellow cadets were given serial numbers, grouped into companies and issued uniforms and kit. One morning, the whole troop was wakened by a loud whistle before the usual predawn reveille. The drill sergeant huffed over to Nyo Maung and bellowed, “Outside your barracks I found a pile of shit. Which one of you bastards did it?”
Nyo Maung felt the veins in his temples throbbing and his chest pounded. He answered obediently, without thinking, “About 3am, I heard footsteps outside. I looked out the window and saw you, sir–” Before he could finish, he felt two hard slaps across his cheeks. He staggered back, knees trembling, though his mind remained clear and calm.
The sergeant leaned in close and spat in Nyo Maung’s face. ‘Now listen up, missy. This isn’t your mum’s house; this is military training! Why would a trainer get up in the middle of the night and shit outside your barracks? So shut your fucking mouth, you lying son of a bitch, got me?”
Nyo Maung stood to attention and shouted as loudly as he could, “Yes, sir!”
The drill sergeant backed away and looked across the room. “Fall in and count off!”
The recruits called out their serial numbers one by one. “One, two, three, four…” and the group leader reported back to the sergeant, “Aungzaya Company standing ready for orders, sir.”
The drill sergeant carried on. “Every one of you cry-babies, clean up the shit with your fingers and dump it in the latrine. Do I make myself clear?”
The recruits dared not disobey. Years later, Nyo Maung could still smell the shit on his fingers.
He remembered the inauguration speech given by the head of the military training school to the new recruits. “If my sons enlisted, I’d tell them a soldier becomes a true man only through the discipline of following orders.”
Obedience became the mantra of Nyo Maung’s life in the army. Every day, his company was drilled to follow orders. Through strict discipline and corporal punishment, they soon learned that obedience was more important than survival or conscience or brotherhood. Order was to be valued above mercy or compassion or any other civilised human quality. Upon completing basic training, he was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Battalion and stationed in the remote Lwal Pan Kuk and Khan Lon regions of northern Shan State to fight alleged communists – ethnic brothers now become enemies.
The brainwashed mind pushed to extremes develops mysterious faculties. Nyo Maung sometimes wondered whether he felt and remembered things more than the others. He still had nightmares about places in the hills, villages razed in “scorched earth” manoeuvres. Fogged-in trenches on the Shan Plateau, the smell of blood, the air thick with dust and smoke. From day one, he was drilled in the “four cuts” – deprive the enemy of food, then finances, then intelligence and finally recruits, by driving village elders, women and children from their homes – yet even in his nightmares, even when he was ill and weak, there was in him a seed of happiness.
In his first years in northern Shan State, Nyo Maung was stationed in all three zones – “white” zones under government control and “brown” zones of contested authority, but most of his time he fought in BCP-held “black” zones where any man, woman or child was a potential enemy to be shown no mercy. In black zones, soldiers went “code red” – cruel as sun and fire – though they needed to distance themselves from their targets in order to harden themselves to their inhuman purpose.
A commanding officer gave orders to level a village in Lwal Pan Kuk. Nyo Maung’s 2nd Platoon blocked off the southern part of the village, while the 1st Platoon herded the villagers north like animals. Suddenly a woman with heavy breasts ran up from the south, and Captain Myint Zaw ordered Nyo Maung to shoot her down.
“My daughter is still in the village!” cried the woman.
“Get down!” shouted Nyo Maung.
The captain repeated his order, “Fire!”
Outright disgust sent a burst of adrenaline rushing through Nyo Maung’s body. It happened so very quickly; he hardly realised he’d scrambled out of the foxhole, grabbed the woman and rolled onto the ground. His chest was soaked with her breast milk.
Captain Myint Zaw ran after him, saying, “Nyo Maung, take her to the family barracks. After the operation, you can have her if you want.”
And so it was that Nyo Maung married Ma Nan Nwel and made a family.
The truck halted with a jolt at Sule Pagoda and shook Nyo Maung from his thoughts. In the fading evening light, he saw students the same age as his grown children out in front of Yangon City Hall waving red flags emblazoned with the fighting peacock, wearing red headbands, holding up framed photos of the Father of Independence, General Aung San.
The whole squad shuffled into a line formation, linking arms shoulder to shoulder. They aimed their loaded guns at the students before them. Nyo Maung didn’t like it: the targets were too close. The enemy was unarmed. He was sure they weren’t members of the Burma Communist Party. Perhaps he could shoot above their heads in the dark and no one would know. He didn’t need any more nightmares so close to retirement.
His prayers, however, went unheard. At a secret signal, the headlights of the army trucks were switched on, full-beam. The students’ faces went white, squinting into the glare, perhaps realising their fate. Staring at each other in silence, the students wondered when the soldiers would shoot. The soldiers waited for orders to do so. A matter of seconds, but to Nyo Maung it was a lifetime. A bird chirped, then “Fire!” resounded – and the soldiers mowed down the students.
After several months in Insein Prison, Nyo Maung was summoned from his cell and handed a sheaf of typed papers detailing his criminal breach of the military code – disobeying a superior’s command in the field. He barely glanced at the indictment before signing his name to the last page. He didn’t care what it said; he just wanted to know what they’d do to him now.
As he walked into the courtroom, he told himself, “I don’t kill innocent people. If I’d pulled the trigger, their faces would have haunted me. I was taught to obey orders and eliminate targets, but I’ve changed. I’m no longer the young recruit I was. I’ve seen too many targets who weren’t enemies. I disobeyed orders and failed the Tatmadaw but, had I obeyed, I’d have failed myself. What is disobedience? Disobeying the rules to appease myself may be a crime, but failing to obey my conscience only gives me nightmares.”
The ceiling fans whirred a slow rhythm. Mould crept into the corners of the whitewashed walls; the wide windows looked out onto the barren prison yard. Nyo Maung was marched up to a low, wooden dock flanked by two long tables. His feet scuffing the broken floor tiles echoed angrily through the colonial hall. Before the Burma Socialist Programme Party emblem sat three court martial judges – two majors and a colonel – neat and robotic in their crisp green uniforms, with pomaded hair, wire-rimmed glasses and gold stars on their shoulders. Nyo Maung knew obedience had raised them in the ranks to where they could sentence any soldier to death.