One evening I was speaking with a dignified 29-year-old Burmese woman, a university graduate who had fled her home after the pro-democracy uprisings of 1988. As we sat under the night sky, with a candle burning between us, we discussed the principle of nonviolence: How can it be effective against a totalitarian regime that tortures and kills unarmed civilians? At what point is self-defense necessary, if only to survive?
In the near distance of war-torn northern Burma we could hear soft guitar music and the voices of students singing love songs, which they did every night. As we listened to the music, I asked my companion if she'd ever been in love. She paused for some time. 'Yes, I have been in love,' she replied. 'Two and a half years ago my fiance and I were to have been married. We loved each other deeply. But the demonstrations in 1988 began only two weeks before our wedding. We so desperately wanted freedom and democracy. The time had come when we thought it would be possible to come out from under the boot of military oppression that had trampled us since we were children.
'First we went out and marched. The next day my sister and brothers came out with us. The following day my mother and father came out, then my aunts and uncles, until my whole family was in the streets. Suddenly the soldiers appeared. They grouped together in three long rows, their automatic weapons and bayonets aimed at us.
'We, in turn, many thousands of us, knelt down in front of the soldiers. We sang to them, 'We love you; you are our brothers. All we want is freedom. You are the people's army; come to our side. All we want is democracy.'
'But they had orders to fire, and they did. Many students, some friends, and some of my family members were shot dead on the spot. I was terrified. There was blood and screaming everywhere. The cracking of gunfire echoed as everyone panicked and ran for cover. People began falling down -- a young friend of mine died in my arms. I looked for my family. They were gone. My fianc? and I began to run.
'We went on running for the next two weeks, deeper and deeper into the jungle. I was still with my fianc?, along with a dozen other students, and we miraculously managed to evade the soldiers. Sometimes we had to bury ourselves under leaves, cling to the banks of rivers, or stand rigidly behind trees as soldiers passed by.
'We felt like animals being hunted, sleeping sporadically on the forest floor, constantly bitten by ants and mosquitoes. Yet we managed to stay alive.
'After two weeks of running, nearing exhaustion, we all contracted malaria. We were extremely weak, feverish, and nauseated. That night the soldiers ambushed us. It was to have been the day of our marriage -- instead, my fiance and I were separated during the firefight.
'I have never seen or heard from him since that night. I don't know if he's alive or not. I dare not contact his family or my family, because it would put them in great danger if the regime found out.'
We sat without stirring. The candle flickered.
'I still think about him,' she said. 'I do miss him sometimes. But being out here in the jungle for these past few years, my values have changed. I'm in love with freedom. And even if I'm caught and tortured to death, if it will help restore freedom in my country and in the world, I will die in love.
'Yes, I have been in love,' she said softly. 'And I remain in love.'
We stared at each other for a long few minutes. She broke the silence, saying, 'Freedom is a choice. Isn't it? As is love.'
Excerpted from Alan Clements' book Instinct for Freedom (New World Library, 2002), forthcoming in paperback May 2006