Every breath he takes is a struggle.
Locked in a cell, held without charge because he condemned one of the military government’s many brutal assaults on dissent, Ludu Sein Win suffered a stroke 28 years ago. It withered his body, but his defiant voice is still strong.
Still producing opinion pieces scrawled in shaky longhand, the journalist and author nimbly dodges censors by writing under 15 pseudonyms.
On a recent afternoon, he sat on the edge of his bed, steadying himself with frail hands pressed flat against a thin mattress.
Every few words, he paused, and pursed his lips. With all the fight left in him, Sein Win, 69, forced his lungs to wheeze in oxygen pumped through the clear plastic tube that tethers him to a machine softly bubbling at his bedside.
“I have never witnessed a dictator voluntarily relinquishing his power,” said Sein Win, who was imprisoned from 1967 to 1980. “The only way to oust this regime is by force.”
Many have been locked up for saying much less since the military seized control of the nation 46 years ago. Yet Sein Win refuses to be cowed. He’s drawing new strength from what he calls the formidable force of young people who defied the regime to aid the victims of Tropical Cyclone Nargis.
Many believe that the surge of volunteer spirit among young people, and even well-known entertainers, and the subsequent anger over the government’s fumbling response to the cyclone have served to strengthen the pro-democracy movement.
But the May disaster also gave the regime a breather. Activists say the 20th anniversary of a 1988 student-led uprising is passing without large demonstrations because they want to focus on helping cyclone victims.
That could change suddenly, some predict, if the cost of rice, fuel and other basic needs remains high.
The cyclone brought pummeling winds and surges of seawater that killed at least 85,000 people, mainly in the southern delta region. Thousands more are still missing, bringing the estimated death toll to 110,000. Five months later, the United Nations says more than 2.1 million survivors depend on food aid and other assistance.
The government relief effort was slow and bungled, and authorities tried to trip up local and foreign aid workers eager to fill the breach. Still, thousands of volunteers, mostly young people, loaded up cars, trucks and boats and headed to the cyclone zone, pushing past checkpoints set up to stop them.
When supplies ran out, they went home with photos and stories that shattered the official line that the ruling generals had everything under control. The volunteers’ ranks swelled, along with donations, and the myth of an invincible regime faded a little more.
“I trust the power of the people, and Nargis showed I’m right,” Sein Win said.
“If we can properly use this united force of young people, we can easily topple this regime.”
Sein Win believes that the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, have the courage required to bring down the generals.
A year ago, the generals crushed any hopes of a peaceful transition to democracy when security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing at least 31 and jailing thousands more. U.N. efforts to broker an accord between the generals and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have also failed. Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy to a landslide election victory in 1990, but the generals rejected the results and threw her in jail. She remains under house arrest.
In mid-August, when U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari made his fourth mediation visit since the crackdown in September 2007, Suu Kyi refused to see him.
According to reports, Gambari’s officials shouted over a bullhorn at Suu Kyi’s back wall for more than three hours over two days in a failed attempt to speak with her.
With the country’s most popular leader silent, Myanmar’s people are waiting for someone to rally opposition to the generals.
The regime couldn’t stop private relief operations. But its generals still seem determined to keep the volunteers off balance.
Zarganar, a popular comedian banned from the stage for lampooning the regime, led a volunteer cyclone relief operation until authorities jailed him on June 4 for publicly criticizing government aid efforts.
Even movie star Kyaw Thu, an idol to millions, and his wife, Shwe Zee Kwet, have faced difficulty in their efforts to provide disaster aid.
The couple were among the first to mobilize a relief mission through their charity, the Free Funeral Services Society. Like other aid groups, it couldn’t get enough trucks and boats to move food and medicine fast and far enough.
The military refused to provide transportation, said Shwe Zee Kwet. “Relief didn’t get there soon enough and people died because of that.”
The stature of Kyaw Thu and his wife grew last fall when they were imprisoned and interrogated for a week because they delivered food and water to Buddhist monks leading anti-government protests.
Authorities banned him from making movies, so he now devotes his time to the sick and disadvantaged.
In August, Kyaw Thu was ordered to move his charity’s headquarters from the Buddhist monastery where its 51 staff members, and 100 volunteers, have worked since 2001. The government offered a new site, but hasn’t issued building permits.
“They say the people of this township don’t want us here,” his wife said. “How can that be? They are happy because they can come to our clinic every day and get everything free here.”
Others, such as Sein Win, have found ways to work around the government’s restrictions. Since the generals have banned Sein Win from publishing his work, he uses pen names and allegory to straighten things out in opinion pieces that have appeared in about two dozen local weeklies and magazines.
“We use many metaphors, and tricks, to outsmart the censor board,” he said.
In one opinion piece, Sein Win says, he took a stealthy shot at the generals by condemning the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Using one of the government’s favorite targets to his advantage, Sein Win called President Bush a cowboy more willing to shoot than seek peaceful political solutions.
“Burmese people know too well what I mean,” the writer said. “I’m urging people to use the language of the gun. Don’t waste our time on proposals from the United Nations, this ‘dialogue,’ this ‘national reconciliation.’ ”
The walls of Sein Win’s home are decorated with washed-out posters of roses and lined by high shelves stuffed with hundreds of books. Thousands more are stacked in the loft above his bed. They satisfy an eclectic taste; they include titles on art and poetry, a Che Guevera biography and “The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.”
The stroke he suffered while in prison, where he spent several years in solitary confinement in a 10-by-12-foot cell, has left Sein Win paralyzed on his right side. His heart and lungs are failing. He has been on an oxygen machine for three years.
Yet Sein Win thinks his poor health is his best advantage over the generals.
“They think I’m a dying old man, sitting in his house 24 hours a day,” he said, smiling with disdain. “They don’t want to be blamed if I die in prison.
“I’m not a brave man,” he added. “But one person must be foolish enough to speak out about what’s really happening here. Only then will the world know the real situation.”