When KoLatt lies down to sleep in his modest room in Alhambra after a long day's work as a packer, he often pictures the magnificent rain forests and sun-drenched beaches of his beloved Burma.
More often than not, however, his memories of the lush jungles and tranquil waters are pushed aside by another image--the bloodied faces of his classmates, slaughtered by soldiers during the 1988 pro-democracy protest at the University of Rangoon.
It is the remembrance of the 49 friends murdered before his eyes that keeps KoLatt packing boxes by day and working the telephone and fax machine by night.
"Because I'm alive, I owe it to them to continue the movement to free Burma," said KoLatt, 32, his gentle demeanor belying a steely determination.
KoLatt belongs to a small but growing Burmese expatriate community of about 10,000 in Southern California that is becoming more organized and vocal in its resistance to the military junta in Myanmar.
Like KoLatt, many Burmese activists toil at menial jobs, beneath their training and education, because they want more time to give to the cause. They live together in cooperative arrangements to reduce expenses. And, like KoLatt, their dream is to return to a democratic homeland.
For KoLatt, a slender man with a shock of black hair, his whole life revolves around the lonely struggle. Awake or asleep, he says, Burma is on his mind.
"I love my country even more since I came to America," he said, adding: "Please call it Burma, not Myanmar. That's the name the military gave to try to fool the world."
KoLatt's readiness to make sacrifices for democracy is not an easy thing for Americans to comprehend, says anthropologist Carol Richards, a Burma specialist and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Burma Forum, an organization that coordinates the movement in California. Most Americans take freedom for granted because they haven't had to make life and death choices for democracy, she said.
Democracy is a guiding power by which KoLatt lives.
"Every decision KoLatt makes, including the one to talk to The Times, is based on whether it will benefit the people of Burma," said Richards, who has worked closely with him for the past five years.
"Ironically, every decision he makes to help Burma takes him one further step from going back home--another clang of the door closing."
KoLatt, a devout Buddhist, is not afraid.
On his chest, he wears a button with a picture of his hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
It reminds him: "Fear is a habit. I am not afraid. Free Suu. Free Burma."
And, on his back, he wears a shirt that says:
I am wounded,
But I am not dead as yet.
Let me down
and let me bleed a while.
I will rise and fight again.
The 1988 military crackdown forced KoLatt and thousands of pro-democracy proponents to flee. Most live as refugees on Myanmar's borders with Thailand, Bangladesh, India and China, where many of Burma's indigenous peoples also dwell.
Others managed to get away to Japan, Europe and North America, where they maintain an international network that stretches from Los Angeles to Tokyo and New York to Paris.
They are succored by non-Burmese human rights activists, such as Richards, who befriend and help them overcome the barriers of language, culture and institutions and offer Western know-how.
In the United States alone, more than 80 campus and community groups support the Burmese movement.
A focus of their campaign has been Unocal, the Los Angeles-based energy company, and its prominent role in building a $1-billion pipeline in Myanmar.
Critics say the pipeline will enrich the illegitimate regime, plunder one of the largest remaining tropical rain forests and disperse villagers along its route--charges denied by Unocal.
"We are trying to speak for the people who cannot speak," KoLatt said. He said forced labor is being used in the project--a charge denied by Unocal.
"It's an uphill battle because giant corporations, such as Unocal, have all the resources," said Richards. "We're just volunteers trying to bring the issue to public light."
A boycott campaign against Unocal gas stations and demonstrations in front of the company headquarters are part of the pro-democracy campaign here.
Much that goes on, however, is unseen--a vigil of nameless people reaching across geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries.
The work is risky for Burmese nationals.
Despite the 10,000 miles that separate him and Burma, KoLatt feels the long arm of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, a panel of soldiers who rule the country now known as Myanmar.
Informants watch his movements, have his picture taken at demonstrations and monitor his mail and phone calls to Myanmar, he said.
Officials with the Myanmar Embassy did not respond to Times requests for comment on the allegations or the activities of the resistance movement.
His activities have made relatives back home targets of government surveillance, too.