To Myanmar on a mission

I was very fearful, for we would be in very choppy waters, only a few kilometres from where the river meets the sea, and neither my brother nor I could swim. Besides, we could be caught by border guards on either side of the border, on water as well as land.

To Myanmar on a mission

by Razi Azmi

(New Age, Dhaka, 2 April 2016)

Whiling away our time in the company rest house near Teknaf, awaiting a decision on our future course of action, we had noticed Siraj Sikdar and Samiullah Azmi in a huddle with a man we didn’t know. He was an ethnic Rohingya from Burma’s Arakan (now Rakhine) state, who claimed to have contacts with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). This man had agreed to take us there and link us up with our Burmese comrades.

We expected mentoring, training and assistance from the CPB in the spirit of “proletarian internationalism”.  Like tunnel warfare (see “The Teknaf base that never was”, New Age, 1 April 2016), it all looked pretty neat in theory.

Preparations were now made for the illegal and dangerous night crossing of the Naf River, which at this point must be about 2-3 kilometers wide. On a very dark night, we boarded two sampans (boats) from the river bank behind Sikdar’s official residence.

I was very fearful, for we would be in very choppy waters, only a few kilometres from where the river meets the sea, and neither my brother nor I could swim. Besides, we could be caught by border guards on either side of the border, on water as well as land.

After an hour or so, but what seemed like an eternity at the time, we reached the eastern, Burmese side of the river. Slowly and silently we disembarked, careful not to stir even the wind for fear of alerting the border patrols. Wading through ankle-deep shallows with our backpacks, we stopped for rest under a canopy of trees.

Hungry for a meal, we pulled out the rations we carried, chapati, gur (jaggery) and tea which had been packed for us by Sikdar’s wife Roshanara. The first of many surprises which awaited us was when our hosts began to help themselves to our meagre supplies. Bellies full and belching, our hosts disappeared and we remained huddled together, not knowing what to expect.

They returned shortly and marched us to a little U-shaped clearing about one hundred metres long and less than fifty metres wide, surrounded by low hills on three sides. Leaving us there, they disappeared. Soon it was dawn, but the sunlight barely reached our confined space.

About mid-day, some villagers brought us food, delicious home cooked rice and chicken. These local Rohingya Muslims said next to nothing but their eyes betrayed curiosity about us. Then they brought us dinner. This was repeated the next day.

Finally, on the third day, they broke their silence. Now convinced that we were university students from decent, middle class families, they asked how we got entangled with such “bad people”.  If we were to believe them – and we had no reason not to – our “intermediaries” to the Burmese Communists were in fact bandits.

These poor, hapless villagers had been asked by this bandit group to feed us. What some of us had vaguely begun to suspect was now confirmed by them.

We had noticed that they kept to themselves and behaved rather suspiciously. For example, if someone was seen or heard approaching in the dark, they would demand proof of identity by asking: “iba khon (who are you)?” The right answer, the code I suppose, at least for the duration of our stay with them, was “iba Roshid (I am Rashid)”.

On the second or third evening, our village hosts came to us with worried looks and asked us to pack up and flee immediately with their help. They told us that the bandits were going to move us later that night. These poor villagers were ready to put themselves in danger in order to assist us in escaping back to Teknaf across the border.

Escorted by these “small” people with hearts worthy of lions, armed with no more than bamboo sticks, we stopped briefly at their village. They asked one of us to come to the village because their womenfolk wanted to bless us and pray for our safe return.  Abu Sayed (aka Zaman) volunteered to go. When he returned, he told us that these women were in tears because of our predicament and the danger to which we had been exposed.

After we resumed our walk in the dark night, in an atmosphere which was already tense, word came that the bandits had learned of our escape and were now trailing us. Gathering pace, with our hearts beating at an even greater pace, we soon arrived at a village in deep slumber by the bank of the river.  A boatman was woken from his sleep to ferry us back across the river.

The villagers bid us farewell and said they will wait by the river bank until they knew we were safely on the other side.  Landing safely a couple of kilometres north of Sikdar’s residence, we walked back and surprised him with the news of another failed mission.

Crisis meetings were held and it was resolved that we needed to go back to the basics, the roots, as it were. In other words, we needed to re-educate ourselves in class consciousness through living and working amongst the industrial working class (proletariat). This could best be done in Chittagong, an industrial city with a large working class, about 150 km the north of Teknaf.

Arriving in Chittagong a few days later, with Samiullah as our leader, we checked into a cheap hotel for the night. Early next morning I found Comrade Matiur Rahman’s bed empty.  In his place, a note saying that he had had enough. Our ranks severely depleted through desertions, we proceeded to rent an unused shop from its owner, posing as migrant workers from Dhaka.

Given our looks, the owner doubted our claim to begin with, but grew suspicious when he noticed, tucked on the shelf on the wall, books by Marx, Lenin and Mao.  After a few days living here and scouting for the opportunity to live with industrial workers, we found a small thatched room in a shanty labourers’ colony.

Our efforts to educate the workers and mobilize them for class warfare had less than a flying start. Unable to find jobs and without any source of subsistence, we were left with very little choice.  After a few days it was decided to return to Dhaka but first it had to be discussed with Sikdar in Teknaf.

I took a bus to Cox’s Bazar, changing to another bus that carried me further down to the mouth of the Naf River, from where Teknaf was a couple of hours by launch (motorboat) at high tide.

From Teknaf I had to walk a few kilometres up north in total darkness.  With forested hills looming to my left, it was one of the scariest walks of my life, lasting an hour or so.  Armed with a kitchen knife, I felt little safety from predatory animal or man.

Sikdar agreed with the proposal I verbally presented to him, which was for us to return to Dhaka. Our first foray into the realm of revolution was a complete failure.

But didn’t Chairman Mao say that a long march of thousands of miles begins with one step, or words to that effect? With faith in revolution and trust in Sikdar’s leadership, we would be victorious one day!

For the moment, though, it was best to leave the remainder of the long revolutionary journey for some unspecified future date. And, to be honest, I quite looked forward to seeing my family again and resuming my studies.

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2 Responses to To Myanmar on a mission

  1. Subodh says:

    You are making fun of Siraj Sikdar and his ideology which is totally inappropriate. If you do not believe in his ideology any more, please keep quite.

  2. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    The comment by Subodh is unwarranted, inappropriate and knee-jerk. Razi Azmi reminisced his past association and experience as an associate of Siraj Sikder in the early days of Sikder’s foray into ultra left underground politics. I found his accounts objective and dispassionately truthful. He neither worshipped nor attempted at vilifying Siraj Sikder. He rather presented facts and left it for his readers to analyse and assess. Even where he has been critical, he has rightly done so based on facts. Critiquing cannot be termed as “making fun of Siraj Sikder”. Subodh has every right to disagree but should not ask someone he cannot agree with to ‘keep quiet’. Siraj Sikder ruthlessly annihilated and forever silenced many of his close associates, who could not agree with him or he simply suspected them of disagreeing with him. In the process he himself eventually got annihilated in tragic circumstances, without achieving his otherwise immense potential as one of the best revolutionary organisers in the history of East Bengal.
    Siraj Sikder is now part of the history and sooner or later he will be unbiasedly assessed by historians. Razi Azmi’s accounts are likely to be useful for their research and the process will either accept or reject his accounts, as deemed appropriate.

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