Five years later, he and his fellow student-soldiers have grimly adjusted to the intractability of the war and the realization that their fighting alone will do little to end it, but they do what they can. Now the camp's deputy commander, Naing, 28, supervises the training and deployment of the student-soldiers, 300 of whom patrol the front lines. The oldest, the camp's commander, is 33; the youngest, who does not yet fight, is 11. They spend 200 days at the front, 100 days in training, and the other 65 on leave and doing work at the camp.
Yet, "this existence is much better than living under a military regime," says Naing, who had never heard his teachers in Myanmar utter the word democracy in all his school years. "Even if I were not in prison, SLORC would open up my brain and eat it," he says, using a Burmese saying that describes brainwashing.
Unlike revolutionaries in other countries who see only war in their future, the students here optimistically try to continue their education in preparation for peace. They run a primary school that has 30 students, are trying to arrange college-level courses and devour news about other nations with similar struggles. "There is revolution all around the world," says Naing. "Ours is not that far behind the others. Unless we eliminate the military regime, there will be no peace. I must continue on until that happens, even if it is in the time of my children."
Unfortunately, the Minthamee student-soldiers have ample role models for such perseverance. Their mentors are the leaders of another group of former students, members of the Karen ethnic minority who fled Myanmar in 1974. They set up their own camp nearby nearly 20 years ago; it has evolved into a permanent refugee village with all the trappings of home. There are elementary, junior high and high schools for their children, a hospital for their sick, even a prison for their criminals. But life is a dead end here. The refugees have no college to send their brightest children to, no jobs at businesses or factories, no way to keep pace with an advancing world.
When Win asks Naing and other students in the various camps he visits what they need, they all tell him the same thing: medicine, food, and for the United States to pressure SLORC into relinquishing power to the government duly elected in 1990.
The international community has responded to the plight of Myanmar's people, but not strongly enough to impress SLORC.
The United States and Japan cut off aid and weapons sales to Myanmar after the 1988 massacres. The 12 countries of the European Community have called on SLORC to restore democracy.
But the countries that still have some leverage with Myanmar--China and the six members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei)--refuse to interfere in what they describe as Myanmar's "internal" problems, apparently because they are loath to jeopardize profitable trade. China reportedly sold Myanmar $1 billion in arms in 1991. With the blessing of their government, 40 logging companies from Thailand, whose own forests have been sorely depleted, signed contracts with SLORC to harvest Myanmar's teak forests. Thailand also expects to benefit from construction of a pipeline, planned by a French company, that will deliver natural gas from the petroleum fields of Myanmar. Singapore is also said to be a source of weaponry for Myanmar's army.
Not even the United Nations has a coherent approach to Myanmar's problems. Last December, a United Nations General Assembly committee voted to rebuke SLORC for continuing to hold Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace, and the international body's Commission on Human Rights has sharply criticized Myanmar. But the U.N. Development Program still conducts Myanmar development projects, which Karen leaders say are using slave labor.
While the U.S., Canadian, Japanese, European and Australian governments sympathize with the plight of Myanmar's people, those nations' businesses have fewer scruples. Oil companies from the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and Britain lined up to sign exploration agreements with SLORC in 1989.
Win has his own formula for peace in Myanmar. "The United Nations should broker a conference. SLORC must be willing to talk to the opposition," he says. "They must withdraw all troops (from the contested zones). They must free all political prisoners. They must agree to hold talks outside Myanmar, preferably outside the countries surrounding Myanmar. They can go on talking for 30 years, for all I care. If they take 30 years, the people are still gaining something, because they're not shooting."