Democracy's Front Line Looks Thinner in Burma

Wearing an olive-green combat jacket, with the letters ABSDF marked in black capitals on his shoulder, Moe Thee Zun, vice chairman of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, looks worried.

"We're trying to eavesdrop on enemy communications," explains the student leader as he listens to a radio scanner. In the half light of the operations room, Mr. Moe's tousled mop of black hair and his dark moustache conjure up echoes of a Burmese-style Che Guevara.

A few miles from here, on the other side of the Thai border, thousands of Burmese troops are massed against ethnic Karen rebels and their Burmese student allies - the ABSDF. "We're still fighting and have had to take up defensive positions. But it's not over yet," explains the guerrilla commander.

For Moe, and some 2,000 or so members of the ABSDF, it has been a long and bitter war. For almost a decade, the guerrilla army has pitted itself against the Goliath of Burma's war machine, comprising an estimated force of up to 300,000 men. The roots of the conflict go back to 1988, when frustration at decades of political repression and economic hardship in Burma spilled over in the form of pro-democracy protests against military rule.

At the time the trouble started, Moe was a physics student at Rangoon University. A prominent activist campaigning alongside Burma's most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, he witnessed the slaughter of unarmed protesters gunned down in the street by government troops.

Less than a year later, he joined a growing number of rebel students in the jungles along the Thai-Burmese border. A young urban intellectual, he was unprepared for the rigors of life in the forest and unversed in the techniques of war. "When we arrived, we faced a lot of personal difficulties," he remembers. "But we did feel that we were free.

"We felt we had a future. In Rangoon there was no hope. Here, there is hope," he adds.

Over time, however, the ABSDF has slid from the public eye. "In 1990-1992 we had all we needed. Now food is not so good. We've been isolated for a long time," explains Win Htein, a former student who gleans news from a shortwave radio.

Despite international condemnation of Burma's junta, the ABSDF has been virtually abandoned. The students and their families survive on two meals a day. There is no electricity or running water, and essentials, like mosquito nets, are scarce.

For many, the hardship and isolation of life in the jungle proved too much. Of the 10,000 or so students who originally fled to the border, around 8,000 have since traveled overseas to become refugees in the West.

"Most of the students overseas are supporting us in some way," says Myo Min, a bespectacled ASBDF official, who returned to the jungle after completing a master's degree in human rights at New York's Columbia University. Even so, the loss of many members has weakened the ABSDF, which has seen new arrivals from inside Burma slow to a trickle.

Early on, the movement was wracked by internal tensions. After one witch hunt for informers and spies, about 50 people were executed, recounts a human rights observer with in-depth knowledge of the ABSDF. "It's certainly a lot more mature as a movement," adds a Western aid worker. "In the early 1990s they were hopeless as soldiers. But now they can hold their own alongside the Karen fighters. In the beginning, they couldn't even cook their own food. They were just middle-class kids."

For all its bravado and courage, the ABSDF is up against desperate odds. Last February, some 5,000 Burmese troops swept down along the Thai border, destroying student and Karen camps in their wake.

Unable to match the government's firepower, the ABSDF is using a new, and perhaps more powerful weapon: ideology. Political defiance is the new watchword of these plucky rebels. The junta's "greatest weakness is its politics," explains Moe, who advocates combining guerrilla warfare with political-information campaigns.

As the battlefield shifts from the jungle trails to the hearts and minds of ordinary Burmese, men like Yeni, a writer and singer, will likely constitute the ABSDF's front-line fighters. Each month, Yeni produces tape-recorded pro-democracy "radio shows" that are distributed through an underground network in Burma. "I can see that the world is changing. So Burma should change, too," says Yeni, expressing an optimism that is a hallmark of ABSDF fighters.

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