Two battles on freedom's trail

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Two battles on freedom's trail

At 11 a.m. about a dozen people start to gather in front of the Burmese Embassy in the Hannam-dong district of Seoul, brandishing pickets and sporting red bandannas tied around their heads. A squad of riot police watch passively, while plainclothes officers toting walkie-talkies scan the scene.

"Free Burma!" the protesters shout on cue.

"I don't know whether they care about this demonstration, but one thing for sure is that they know about it," a security officer says. The "they" is the Burmese Embassy, which has been the target of this verbal barrage every third Sunday of each month since July 1999.

But this is Thursday. The ralliers have broken the Sunday habit to make a special point. This is the anniversary of the Aug. 8, 1988, student protest in Burma, which started that country's democracy movement. As the protesters gather exactly 14 years later, the desire to push their cause seems undiminished by time. They are striking back at a government they say is repressive and undemocratic, and their determination appears to grow stronger with each rally.

"Free Burma! Power to the people! The military should keep its promise!" The shouts begin at one end of the line of protesters and ripple to the other as each of the demonstrators takes a turn.

After 30 minutes of group harangue, they move 50 meters down the street to the official residence of the minister of foreign affairs and trade, where they take up a different but related cause. According to Kyaw Swa Linn, 29, a local official of the National League for Democracy, Burma's main opposition group to the military government, the protesters asked to be granted refugee status in May 2000 ?but two years later they are still waiting for a decision by the Korean government.

"Korean officials asked us to submit forms that can prove that we have been fighting for democracy in Burma," says Mr. Kyaw, known as "Sharin" to his friends. "But how can we obtain such forms when we are not even allowed to go back to our own country?"

Technically, Mr. Kyaw is an illegal resident in Korea; his visa was granted only for a six-month stay when he entered the country in July 1994 as an industrial trainee, a program the government launched to ease the labor shortage in industries Koreans shun because the work is considered dirty or dangerous. He worked at several companies in Incheon for a couple of years. Now he works part-time jobs in the nearby Bucheon area. He says he is committed fully to the democracy movement in his country.

Mr. Kyaw dropped out of university at the end of his freshman year to leave Burma because, he says, there was no other option. The Burmese military regime closed schools, which had become the center for demonstrations against the government. "There was no way you could study," Mr. Kyaw said. "Schools did not function properly and later many of them were moved to the outskirts of Rangoon, the capital, to eliminate rally points." He said he wanted to learn something he could take back to his country. "I thought my country would change in the meantime, but it never happened."

Korea is for the Burmese a refuge from the vagaries of a dictatorship, but along with the freedom of expression and association they have found here, they risk being snared by a different type of tyranny.

"When I told my friends I was going to Korea they warned me to be careful," says Maung Zaw, 34, who came to Korea in 1994. "They had heard of stories of people who worked hard but did not get paid by their Korean employers." Mr. Zaw and his fellow Burmese are battling on two fronts: against their government and against small Korean companies that often take advantage of low-cost foreign workers. A visit to Mr. Zaw's residence shows the harsh conditions that many of the foreign industrial trainees endure. His apartment is only a small room, and he has to share it with two other workers. The roof leaks, the wallpaper is peeling and fungus stains are visible here and there.

Mr. Zaw has been working for Endliess, a shoe manufacturing company, since June 1995, although he never signed a formal contract. His monthly salary is around 900,000 won ($750), from which he has to pay 120,000 won every month, his portion of the rent for the room. He says sticking with one employer has brought some stability and experience and that he makes much more than other foreign workers, many of whom wander from one job to the other.

Mr. Zaw, who paid a broker $3,500 to bring him to Korea, says that he found out early how harsh the situation could be. "When I first came here and attended meetings or rallies of foreign workers, they would chant slogans such as 'We are not slaves,' or 'Don't hit us anymore.' But that was then. Things have gotten better since the Korean civic groups took up the issue, but I am still hearing about incidents." According to the Bucheon Migrant Workers House, a shelter organization for foreign workers, last year there were 25 cases of violence by employers and 276 complaints of unpaid wages. Despite this situation, which could easily divert his attention from the battle back home, Mr. Zaw remains firmly focused on his mission.

"One day, I want to go back to a country that is free, and that is what I am fighting for right now. But people like us have to deal with a lot of things. If we don't help ourselves, who is going to do it?"

Sharin, Mr. Zaw and other Burmese workers formed a group in 1997 in Korea, which became an official branch of the National League for Democracy in 1999. Each of the 17 members pays monthly dues of 50,000 won ($40) to 100,000 won to finance activities. "Every one of us is really tight on money," Mr. Zaw says. "Being foreigners here and mostly working in factories, we barely make enough for ourselves; but we are willing to contribute whatever we can."

Burma's name was changed by the military regime to Myanmar in 1989, but many countries still acknowledge only the former name. The country won its independence from British rule in 1948. In 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup that put in place a socialist dictatorship. In 1988, mass protests in an exercise of "people power" toppled the Win regime but another military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, took over and crushed the uprising.

In 1990, the military government promised to hold a general election and transfer power to the winner. The promise was ignored after Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize the following year, declared victory over her military-backed opponent, general Saw Maung.

Korea and Burma established diplomatic ties in 1975. Burma became widely known among Koreans in October of 1983 when a bombing by North Korean agents in Rangoon killed 17 officials in the administration of President Chun Doo Hwan, who was scheduled to make an official visit to the country later that month.

Seoul officials insist that proper procedures are being followed on the asylum request. Kim Pan-joon, an official at the Ministry of Justice and a member of the Refugee Recognition Council, an organization comprising government officials and ordinary citizens, said that the ministry is reviewing the application of the Burmese organization. But more than two years have passed since the application for asylum in May of 2000. Many civic groups have questioned the government's will to grant the Burmese refugee status. Asked why a decision still has not been made, Mr. Kim said that since an organization and not an individual has applied, the process takes longer and the council is still waiting for material that could back the applicants' claims. "One thing that we have to consider is why these people did not make their request at the beginning, when entering the country," he says.

Civic groups, such as the Korea Labor and Society Institute, contend that the government's overall policy is not to grant refugee status. "President Kim Dae-jung says that he is close to Aung San Suu Kyi and the government has made some friendly gestures toward her, but Korea is still doing business with the current government," says Kang Yong-bae, an institute official. "We are not too optimistic for them." Mr. Kang said that Korea, throughout its history, has granted refugee status to only one person, an Ethiopian.

The Burmese are technically granted a stay under a temporary visa while their asylum applications go through the legal machinery, but many of them are illegal residents and have been for quite some time.

Kang Kyung-bok, a young police officer guarding the embassy complex, displays sympathy for the demonstrators, saying, "I am here on duty but I do understand where they are coming from. After all, it has been only about 10 years since our own country got its first civilian government. I just hope they don't do anything rough."

After an hour or so the group ends the rally and exchanges farewells. Some depart by bus; others take the subway. Sharin and Maung Zaw shake hands with their comrades, promising to see each other again. But the end of the rally means only the beginning of a new one, as Sharin says in a determined voice, "We'll do this until we don't need to do it anymore."

by Brian Lee

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