International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Burma
Bodyguard of Aung San Suu Kyi
San Suu Kyi: The Voice Of Hope documents a series of conversations
between Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and American author
Alan Clements. The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader was
asked how Burma could achieve a democratic revolution through non-violence
and overcome a brutal military dictatorship with an army of 400,000
Her answer was simple:
This singular trait, in the eyes of "The Lady", as Aung San
Suu Kyi is affectionately known, is what her supporters and the civilians
possess and demonstrate in abundance. Any individual that campaigns
for freedom and democracy in Burma will be arrested, interrogated, tortured
and locked away.
One man who can account for such horrors is Iqbal, a 39 year old man
from Rangoon now living in Melbourne, Australia. He has three sisters
living in refugee camps in Thailand, and was a survivor himself of imprisonment
and torture before fleeing Burma and reaching Thailands largest
refugee camp, Mae La, on the Thai-Burma border.
Iqbals story is living testimony of the Orwellian nightmare that
is carried out daily in modern day Burma. But one characteristic particularly
enables him to stand out. Iqbal is a former bodyguard of Aung San Suu
Iqbal and I speak through the assistance of a translator and in between
sips of green tea he re-traces the path that began prior to the military
coup of 1988.
"When I started working for the Mining Ministry, I won two gold
medals, in 1985 and 1986, for hurdles in athletics. Each government
department held their own sporting competitions every year," he
begins. Iqbals salary ranged between 130-170 Burma Kyat ($USD
19-27 today) a month, higher than the regular government workers
salary. But a lack of government funding forced him to quit, as his
salary was not enough to allow for a basic standard of living. Iqbal
was also a keen kickboxer, occasionally training at a facility owned
by a family member.
In 1988, the death of a student at Rangoon Institute of Technology,
as well as civilian protests against the devaluation of the Burmese
Kyat led to the 8888 Uprising (named after the day of the uprisings
commencement, August 8, 1988). After weeks of protests, Burmese army
soldiers opened fire on crowds around the country and massacred 3,000
people. Thousands more were arrested or fled into the jungles.
As the world saw images of the mass slaughter unfold, Iqbal turned to
political activism. He provided security for Botataung township and
formed the Tri Colours Flag Students and Youth Organisation. "We
guarded Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD Party between 1988 and 1990, meeting
with her and (NLD) officials daily," he adds. In addition, Iqbal
helped take care of administrative duties and management of the NLD.
The Tri Colours Flag Group worked with other opposition groups and,
as chief organizer, Iqbal wrote letters and designed pamphlets speaking
out against the military regime. "Between 40 and 50 (people) operated
in and around Rangoon. We had to move quickly to avoid being detected
and arrested by government officials. The Burmese junta attempted to
intimidate us and regularly carried out beatings and harassed us all
the time," he explains.
The constant surveillance eventually led to Iqbal being arrested in
the lead-up to the 1990 election. He was detained for causing unrest
and organizing student demonstrations during and after the poll, which
the NLD won but the military junta refused to honor. Iqbal was apprehended
by two members of the junta and arrested on November 11, 1990 after
attending a demonstration. He resisted his arresters and punched a Burmese
Army Major, but was beaten unconscious by between 20 and 30 government
military intelligence officers who joined in the attack.
"They had been waiting inside a tea shop and moved in to attack
me," he continues. "The officers knew that I was a kickboxer
and that my uncle had run a club for members for the NLD, Tri Colours
Flag and other opposition groups." Two of Iqbals friends,
a member of the All Burma Democratic Students Federation and another
from the All Burma Youth Organization, were also apprehended.
Iqbal was interrogated and beaten by members of both Military Intelligence
(MI-3) and the Navy, as he lived close to the port attached to the Rangoon
Rover before being subjected to beatings. This began his two and a half
year sentence, commencing with a months incarceration at the notorious
Insein Prison without charge.
"For four days, I was laid on my side and handcuffed behind my
back. The navy officers placed a hood over my head so I could not recognize
anybody," Iqbal elaborates. For a moment, I considered getting
up from my chair so he could show me exactly what position he was forced
into, but I decided against this.
Officers rotated every two hours and on several occasions, Iqbal was
beaten by multiple navy officers. "I was deprived of food, water,
sleep or medicine. My psychological and mental state was so bad as a
result of the pain, I started banging my head on the table incessantly
so that I split my head open and (would) receive treatment and hopefully
get a reprieve from all of the torture," he says without pausing.
After four days, Iqbal was given one slice of bread, a cup of water
and some medicine to treat the head wound. The beatings, however, continued.
In January 1991, Iqbal was found guilty of causing unrest and sentenced
to three years hard labour. He shared a prison cell with 200 people,
both common criminals as well as political prisoners. Family members
and friends were able to visit him once a fortnight for 15 minutes at
a time, but prison authorities made them wait in for numerous hours
before being given access.
Following his release in 1993, Iqbals story became keenly sought
after, and he was interviewed by an Australian journalist in Rangoon
about his experiences of torture in jail. This material appeared alongside
interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U (co-leader of the NLD)
for a documentary that appeared on Australias ABC TV network in
April 1996. The Burmese Embassy in Canberra recorded a copy of this
program on videotape and sent it to the military junta in Rangoon..
With a sustained media focus about the documentarys contents,
Iqbal was arrested for a second time in June 1996, again after leaving
Aung San Suu Kyis residence in Hle Den Junction, near Rangoon
University. He was sentenced to seven years jail. The junta also planned
to sue Suu Kyi and Iqbal for subversion and for spreading misinformation
about the political and social situation in Burma.
"I escaped torture after being arrested because Aung San Suu Kyi
personally intervened by meeting with the junta leadership and filing
a missing persons report on my behalf," Iqbal tells me. While
in Tharyarwaddy prison, he met with Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro,
the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Violations
in Burma, and gave evidence regarding torture within Burmas prisons.
This resulted in interrogation from intelligence officials by Pegu Division
over comments he made about the allegations.
Upon being set free in November 2002, two years after Suu Kyi had been
re-arrested by the junta and placed under house arrest, Iqbal became
politically active again. He was assigned to Suu Kyis Social Standing
Committee for the NLD, and at time the same time, collected data on
the state of Burmas prisons and assisted former and current political
prisoners attain better access to health and education. In mid-July
2004, he was seriously advised to stop everything for his own good by
intelligence officials, and at this point made the decision to leave
After gaining financial assistance for food and clothing, Iqbal took
a bus from Rangoon to Myawaddy, where a local guide helped him get across
the river to Mae Sot, Thailand. Eventually he entered the Mae La refugee
camp, where he remained for four years. The camp houses more than 40,000
refugees from Burma, mainly ethnic Karen people. The Thai army runs
the camp, but it is administered by the Karen National Union (KNU)
Since arriving in Australia in 2008, Iqbal now works closely with supporters
of the NLD Party living in the country, but does not have an official
role. He is a representative of the Assistance Association of Political
Prisoners Burma, providing support for political prisoners and their
families. But he is concerned about possible repercussions against his
sisters who are in refugee camps in Thailand.
Surviving torture as a political prisoner leaves Iqbal convinced that
everybody has the right to stand up to their aggressors and attackers
when meeting outside of their comfortable environment. This brings everyone
onto a level playing field. "Following my release from prison in
1993, I spoke to the generals who ran the prison where I was incarcerated.
I met them inside a tea shop," Iqbal says, then looks me in the
eye. When I query him as to whether he was frightened to approach them,
he shakes his head.
"I declared, We do what we believe in. You did terrible things
to us. If we want to get revenge, we can do it easily. But we do not
want to do that. The bruises you inflicted are not there anymore, but
the scars will remain with us forever." It is this defiance
that is nurtured by survival from an environment of war and its aftermath,
and Iqbal explains to me that when authority members in Burma stick
together in numbers, they feel invincible. But as individuals on the
street, they are frightened.
Our conversation inevitably focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi, the politician
he protected for many years.
"There is one incident that will always remind me of how special
she is," Iqbal relates. "It was Thingyan (Burma New Year)
celebrations in 2006 at Daw Aung San Suu Kyis residence. The military
junta had blocked off the house and street to prevent everybody from
leaving the (NLD) compound. Many soldiers were in front of the residence,
including the divisional commander. We were all about to leave the front
gate. The military commander, along with his soldiers ordered us not
to attempt to leave the residence. But Aung San Suu Kyi simply walked
out the gate, ignored the soldiers, and continued to walk on without
looking back. I was amazed at this show of resilience."
It is this act of defiance that is written about in books and recorded
in documentaries, but very few individuals have the distinct honor of
witnessing it in person.
Iqbal continues, "Later that evening, I asked her, Auntie
(a term of respect), why didnt you look back when they were out
to stop you?"
Her response was, "When they call out your name, you dont
look back. You do what you have to do. A soldier might shoot at you,
but looking back will make you feel something. That feeling may cause
you to lose sight of your ultimate goal."
Aung San Suu Kyis endless courage provides Iqbal with the inspiration
to spend his life working to see Burma achieve a genuine democracy that
its civilians have prayed and paid the ultimate sacrifice for.
"Since I know injustice takes place in Burma every day, I know
that I am safe in Australia, but I cannot forget what has happened to
me. The pre-condition of having all political prisoners released before
any democratic election taking place in Burma in 2010 is very important.
No votes in Burma can be cast freely and fairly before then. Until that
day arrives, I can never be at peace."
© David Calleja May 1st 2009
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