[Chinland Guardian Note: In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the struggle for democracy in Burma and the birth of the new Chin revolutionary movement, Chinland Guardian is proud to present the following memoirs by a former student activist and ex-Chin revolutionary soldier. Two decades after he was forced into exile, Victor Biak Lian remains active in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. He now works as a member of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), the Chin Forum (CF) and a member of the Board of Directors of Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). An advisory member of the Chinland Guardian News Group, Victor Biak Lian was visiting Switzerland to attend a meeting on “Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” at the United Nations in Geneva where Chinland Guardian caught up with him.
The “Undying Cause: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Fighter” represents personal reflections on the aftermath of the 1988 nation-wide uprising and the early days of the Chin revolutionary movement.]
The Undying Cause: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Fighter*
by Victor Biak Lian
I was tired, in fact I was exhausted. Even the drizzling monsoon rain was not enough to deter me from fast falling asleep after having spent days fighting in the frontline. The night seemed to be darkened by the unforgiving downpour and the resulting fog that was engulfing all my immediate surroundings. Visibility was so limited I could not even clearly see another comrade curling up just one foot away from where I was.
It was August 10, 1990 and we were camping out midway returning from a combat operation in the middle of a dense and malaria-infested tropical forest in Kachin State, having been unable to reach our original destination.
No sooner had I fallen asleep than I found myself being awakened by a sudden nudge. One of my comrades rushed to tell me that our column commander wanted to talk to me.
I grabbed hold of my gun as I rushed out.
“Victor, one of your comrades doesn’t seem to be in good enough shape to come with us for the rest of the journey. Better stay with him to keep him company. Bring him to us when he gets better,” the column commander said to me in a blunt voice.
As I went over to see him I immediately noticed that his eyes had not blinked. When I held his arms to check his body temperature, it was already cold. But there was a slight bit of breath still left in him. He groaned a few times before I took him in my arms.
No sooner had I held him than he took his last breath. He died right in my arms. I found myself overcome with grief.
He was the first casualty in a war that we had just begun fighting. He was also the youngest of us, who were taking military training in Kachin State as revolutionary soldiers in the newly formed Chin National Army. We were embedded in small units with the Kachin Independence Army to fight alongside them in the front line battles against the Burmese Army.
Tragically he caught malaria during his first military operation in the front line and had succumbed to the disease.
His name was Sui Kung. He was a young, healthy fellow who during the 1988 popular uprising, was only in the seventh grade. Being in a front line mobile unit, we lacked the proper medical supplies and attention that could have saved his life. He had already been too weak to walk on his own and we had been carrying him on our backs all that day.
All members of the Chin National Army participating in combat operations in that area gathered to pay our last respects with a prayer service. We laid him to rest that same night.
At the gathering, I noticed a fellow Chin solider by the name of Mawi Li Lian (we called him Mawi Lan as a term of endearment) who was camping beside us with his Kachin unit. He looked pale and weak. His head was wrapped with a bandage to keep him from bleeding. He had been bitten by a leech that punctured a vein on his forehead. The profuse bleeding had not stopped.
“When do you think we can go home, Vic?” he asked me in a weak voice. “I think we will go home soon, probably as soon as this operation is over,” I answered in an attempt to comfort him.
We reached our base camp the next day, completely drained and exhausted. We rested for two days to regain our energy. At the camp, I found myself being asked the same question by another comrade, Salai Sang Za Hmung (Hmung Hmung), who understandably was very eager to go home at that point. After all, we had been in Kachin State for nearly two years training and fighting with the Kachin guerrillas in some of the most gruelling conditions. “I can’t spend even another day here,” he said to me impatiently.
As someone older in age, I took it as my responsibility to encourage him. Although I wasn’t sure myself when we were going home I told him we were going home very soon. Just as I was saying it to him, someone interrupted and asked him to saddle up for another combat operation. It was the last time I saw Hmung Hmung.
About two months later, I found myself lying in a hospital bed reading some notes written on a small piece of paper. I was being treated for acute malaria. The disease was so prevalent in the Kachin jungles. Most of us didn’t bother to get treatment until we’d become seriously ill from it. One might be able to dodge an enemy bullet, but it was difficult not to catch malaria in those areas.
As I read the notes, I broke into tears when I discovered that Mawi Lan and Hmung Hmung had passed away.
Mawi Li Lian had been in his third year studying physics at Rangoon University. Sang Za Hmung had been a freshman at Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) when Burma plunged into crisis in 1988. They were both very bright individuals who were very active in student activities.
It was not long after this terrible news that I learned that another comrade had been killed. His name was Thawng Lian Piang (Aa Thawng). There were conflicting accounts about his death. Some said he was found hung on a tree after he was captured by the Burmese troops. Others said that he died of sickness. All that was known for certain was that he died somewhere in the KIA Battalion 5 area. Aa Thawng had been a final year student majoring in English at Rangoon University. His peers knew him for being a good singer of English songs.
We suffered one casualty after another and it became more and more painful to cope with the losses. It was in October of 1990 and we still hadn’t gone back. I didn’t know why we still remained in Kachin State.
On one particular day at the camp, I decided to take a stroll. I guess I was just looking to fill the emptiness in my mind. It was a clear day and I was enjoying the scenic view of beautiful hills all around the area. I could feel the cold breeze blowing against my face as I walked along the path. But somehow at the corner of my mind, I had a subconscious feeling that something was up.
Unable to contain myself, I decided to ask my commander for permission to go up to the KIO Headquarters. Without hesitation, he granted it.
It was a one-day journey to the KIO Headquarters. It’s strategically located at 9000 feet above sea level on a mountaintop. But because of the high elevation, it rains almost year-round and snows in the winter.
When I finally made it to the Headquarters, I noticed the strange looks in the eyes of some of my comrades there. I couldn’t figure out just what was happening then. But after an evening meal, I was summoned by my superiors and seated around a campfire as they broke the news to me.
My younger brother Salai Biak Thiang (Aa Thiang) had been killed at the hands of unknown assailants in India.
I was overwhelmed with shock and disbelief, but my uneasy feelings back at camp finally made sense to me.
Aa Thiang was taking a distance education course at Mandalay University. He was a final year student of philosophy in 1988. A year earlier, he had passed his exams with distinction, which would have qualified him to continue his Masters degree as a full time in-course student. But like thousands of students at that time in Burma, we both found our education and life being suddenly disrupted by the political upheaval of 1988. In the ensuring brutal crackdown against students and pro-democracy activists following the military coup, we both went into exile and found ourselves living in a refugee camp in Champhai, a border town in India’s Mizoram State.
With the formation of Chin National Front, I was among a group of nearly 100 Chin youths who volunteered to go to Kachin State to receive military training from the Kachin Independence Army, one of the strongest and oldest insurgency movements in Burma.
I made a deal with my brother: I would go to Kachin State to be a soldier and that he would remain in India and perhaps join a Theological college somewhere and serve God. This was a conscious choice we both made.
Aa Thiang had always been an active member of the Church, volunteering as a Sunday school teacher and as youth leader.
Aa Thiang and I spent half a night singing together some of the gospel songs we used to sing as Sunday school teachers. It was the night before I was to leave for Kachin State to be trained as a soldier. It was somewhat different the way we looked at each other without saying a word that night. By daybreak I was already setting off for Kachin State. He prayed for me to have a safe journey as he saw me off.
That moment is still fresh in my memory.
On July 27, 1990 at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, just a short distance from the Champhai refugee camp, he was violently hacked to death by unknown assailants. But compared to other comrades who died fighting in the jungles of Kachin State, he was lucky enough to be laid in a proper tomb. That was the only consolation I could find in the news of his violent death.
It was in late 1991 when we arrived back at the Chin State-Mizoram border. I had mixed feelings. I was happy to have made it back alive and well. My brother’s prayer for my safe journey had been answered. But he was no longer there to greet me on my return.
Our journey home itself was not without hardships. It took us more than 120 days of walking through some of the most difficult terrains and treacherous jungles of northwest Burma: from the northern tip of Burma on the Chinese border, all the way down to Chin State-Mizoram border.
A new revolutionary armed struggle against the Burma Army was about to begin in the Chin homeland – a new ethnic army to fight a brutal regime from the western front.
Our journey back home proved to be even more difficult and challenging than our combat training and fighting experiences in Kachin State. Our food supplies ran out and we found ourselves starving for most of the rest of the journey. At one point in the Naga Hills, we were completely without food for 40 straight days, surviving only on wild banana shoots and other edible roots that we foraged in the jungles. Disease and sickness were rampant during the rainy season, but summer and winter also brought their own set of hardships. We found ourselves almost completely worn out by hunger, diseases and exhaustion.
In the midst of such enormous challenges, we ran into ambushes and gunfights with the Burmese Army on at least three different occasions. One of my comrades, Sawma, was shot in the leg and arm by Burmese troops while wandering in the jungle in search of food. Luckily, he managed to hide himself in the jungles for several days to avoid capture. By the time he was found by Naga villagers, his wounds were already smelly as they had become infested with maggots. We had had to secretly sneak him into Indian Territory so he could get medical treatment at a hospital in Churachandpur in Manipur State.
Years later I found myself living in New Delhi as a refugee, having been discharged from the Chin National Army.
It was April 25, 1995. The scorching summer heat was almost unbearable.
It was just beginning to get dark when two friends unexpectedly showed up at the door. Salai Daniel and Tial Pen (Tialte) asked to talk to me in private. From the looks in their eyes I could sense something was up. What they told me later shocked me beyond belief.
“We’ve just received a telephone call from Aizawl that Salai Sang Hlun (U Hlun) died on April 23,” Daniel told me.
U Hlun was the Vice Chairman of the Chin National Front. Earlier in April, I had travelled to Aizawl to meet with him. I was having conversation with Major That Ci, who told me that U Hlun had been arrested by Indian security forces. But even before I’d finished the conversation with Major Ci and had a chance to digest the news, both of us were arrested by the Mizoram police as part of an immigration sweep. We spent the next two nights in a police lock-up.
The Indian and Burmese army had just launched a massive joint security operation code named “Operation Golden Bird” against the Naga rebels. The Indian army had accused the Chin National Front of helping the Naga rebels transport arms through the borders along the two countries. U Hlun and two other members of the CNF were then arrested by Indian security forces at Parva village on the border with Bangladesh. They were transported by army helicopter to the Assam Rifles base in Aizawl where they were tortured. U Hlun died as a result of torture in custody. Thawng Mang disappeared without anyone knowing where the Indian army had dumped his body. Kung Ling was later released from custody because he was very young.
Since my discharge from the Chin National Army, I’d been looking after two of his sisters in Delhi as refugees. Later I married Khuang Cin Par, the younger sister of Salai Sang Hlun.
My wife Khuang Khuang was just innocently preparing dinner when Salai Daniel and Tialte broke the news to me in private. It was a heart wrenching experience. How would I tell my wife that her eldest brother had died? How would we cope with the fact that a brother and leader of our movement had been killed? Although she appeared to notice the sad look in my face, she didn’t ask me what was wrong.
I decided to wait until after dinner to break the terrible news to her. And we all cried. U Hlun had indeed been killed.
So many lives had been lost since the struggle began. So many families had been torn apart and shaken. And more lives would still be lost along the way. In the meantime, the suffering of our people continues and more blood and tears are being shed. But our cause is undying.
*The opening Chapter in an upcoming book by Victor Biak Lian, which was originally written in Chin with a title “Remembrance Days,” is translated into English by Salai Za Uk Ling.