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Burma Students' Odyssey

Daring tale of protest, flight, capture - and escape to America

POINTING to faces in a wrinkled snapshot, a young Burmese refugee tells the fate of each: One was killed by a Burmese military patrol; another was deported by Thai immigration police and never seen again. And one close friend is rumored to have committed suicide while in Thai custody.The student, Thaung Htut (pronounced "Tong Toot"), is one of 15 Burmese refugees who left Thailand to study on a grant from the United States Information Agency (USIA). After a two-month English refresher course here at Simon's Rock College, the students have now dispersed to study at four universities in the United States. A smallish man in his 20s, Thaung wears a thin cotton shirt and a colorful skirt-like longyi that better suit Burma's 100-degree heat than the cool mountain breezes of western Massachusetts. "If this is your summer," he says, sitting under a rain-spattered porch, "I can't imagine your winter!" Thaung Htut's story helps put a human face on a country often ignored in the West. Totalitarian regimes around the world have toppled under outcries for reform, but the Burmese military has been able to ignore such calls. The courage of Thaung and thousands of Burmese students in calling for democratic reforms may have inspired fellow students in China. Sadly, students in both countries met similar fates. In September 1988, as Burma's military began to round up opposition party members, activist Buddhist monks, and student organizers, Thaung and other students fled to Thailand. A year later, China began its own crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Burma, now called Myanmar, has been largely shut off to the West since it was granted independence by Britain in 1937. After World War II, Burma's new leaders dabbled in democracy, but in 1962 military commander Ne Win seized control and formed a socialist government. Military leaders have dominated the country ever since. Thaung first got in trouble with Burmese police in 1987 for handing out leaflets critical of the government. He was detained, questioned, beaten, and later released to his father's care. Torture had left Thaung near death. A year later, he and 106 fellow students fled south along the coast to the Thai border. When Thaung's group reached the Thai border aboard a small shrimp-smuggling boat in September 1988, the crackdown had just begun. Thousands of students were rounded up by the Burmese military and detained without trial. Thaung and his companions were deported immediately by Thai authorities. Burmese soldiers arrested the group and commandeered ships from local villagers to escort the students back to Rangoon. But support for the students was strong in the Burmese village of Kawthaung: Fishermen sabotaged the commandeered boats and sneaked the students out of detention. The next night they fled to Thailand. Thaung made his way north to the rebel-held area of Three Pagodas Pass. After a year in the rebel camps, Thaung left the jungle for Bangkok. He picked up odd jobs in construction and hid from Thai immigration police in a cramped one-room apartment with seven other refugees. But the police soon caught on. In a late-night raid on the apartment, they arrested Thaung and his roommates in April 1990. Thaung spent seven days in jail. On the day he was sentenced, Thaung slipped out of handcuffs and disappeared into crowded Bangkok. "The two immigration police officers were suspended from their ranks because of my escape," Thaung says, and chuckles. The US State Department estimates 150,000 Burmese are in Thailand illegally; only 2,000 have sought refugee status, but nearly 4,000 are thought to be students whose lives would be endangered if they returned. This fall Thaung begins classes in mechanical engineering at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J.

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