There's graffiti covering the walls surrounding the Generation Wave hideout here in the dusty town of Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border: giant bubble letters spelling out FREEDOM and DEMOCRACY in a shade of purple too optimistically bright to be the handiwork of disgruntled youth. This despite the fact that Generation Wave is one of the largest underground youth movements inside Burma, a network of young people brought together by a desire to challenge the repression, brutality and subjugation of the ruling military junta. In other words, they have a lot to be disgruntled about.
Generation Wave's most prominent public protest happened in the days leading up to Burma's widely discredited 2008 constitutional referendum, held -- unbelievably -- two days after Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country, leaving an estimated 180,000 people dead. Burma's generals routinely stamp out any signs of public dissent -- citizens caught carrying material in any way critical of the government are thrown in jail and can be sentenced to years in prison (popular Burmese comedian Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years for such "crimes" as owning DVD footage of the destruction wrought by Nargis). Despite this climate of intimidation, Generation Wave managed to launch a broad public messaging campaign ahead of the election, asking citizens to make an "X" sign in public areas as a symbol of their rejection of the referendum. For this, Generation Wave organizers were thrown into jail and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
"X" signs were never going to put an end to over 40 years of military dictatorship, of course. But what the signs -- and Generation Wave -- represent is a rebuke of power, a tangible reminder of the opposition. These gestures -- rare and empowering in a country so overcome with fear -- threaten the junta that sees revolution in the shadows of hope.
Wave's charismatic spokesman is a chain-smoking refugee in his late-20s who has been involved with the group since its inception. "We call it Generation Wave," he tells me, "because we want to keep moving forward, again and again, no matter how many times they try to stop us." Most of his fellow activists inside the honeycombed Mae Sot outpost are in Thailand illegally. Like millions of other Burmese, they have fled their homeland by bus and foot, traversing river crossings like the one here in Mae Sot, where the military government looks the other way with (cough) proper incentive. (Click on the video below to see illegal smuggling across the Burma-Thai border.)
"But I have to be very careful about who we let come live here," he explains. "It is a very difficult life. You cannot leave this house because it's too dangerous to go out [for fear of Thai government arrest]. Many people don't understand why they have no freedom in Burma and why they have no freedom here."
There is no denying that Generation Wave is a youth movement: It is populated by young dudes in Cannibal Corpse T-shirts, their teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, the plywood walls of their makeshift home spray-painted with the Generation Wave logo, Burmese dormitory-style. But they are proud, defiant, old men in their resolve. One member, a former political prisoner who had already served eight years in jail ("The cell was 10 feet wide, and they allowed us outside to walk for one hour a day," he reported), was jailed again for Generation Wave activities several years ago, receiving an early release as part of the regime's concession to international pressure.
"Did you know you would be arrested and sentenced again?" I asked.
"We already know that when we are arrested we will be put in jail for 10 years," he replied, then added, "When I am arrested, I think I will be in prison for 15 or 20 years."
He had every intention of going back into Burma, undercover, sometime soon. But here he was, in Mae Sot -- a pokey, one-horse town, yes, but one where you could at least listen to music and speak freely.
Why not just stay here and begin a life something closer to ordinary?
"Here, we don't have the military regime," he said. "But we are not free. We are not home."
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