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
‘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
‘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
‘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
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
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