In the run-up to September 9, 1999, there was great frustration among Burmese exile groups resident in Thailand and just across the border in the mountains of Burma that no progress was being achieved in the efforts to bring down the dictatorship. There was much talk about the need for stronger action. On the “four 9's” itself, hundreds of Burmese, representing a dozen different groups, demonstrated at the Burma Embassy in Bangkok. (Please see the next photo essay.)

It was a good demo, but other than that - it generated a fair amount of press coverage - it led to nothing else.

A new group, calling themselves the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors, decided to take action and make a strong symbolic statement. Shortly after the “four 9's,” in October, and using armed force, they took over the Embassy. It was even suggested that they planned to kidnap or kill the Burmese Ambassador, but failed at this because he left the Embassy compound shortly before they arrived. They held the Embassy, cut down the dictatorship’s flag, and then bargained for a helicopter (reportedly using files taken from the Ambassador’s safe identifying Burmese spies operating in Thailand, which took them to the border.

It seemed a hugely successful action, since it create massive worldwide publicity about Burma, and since no one was hurt. It was, however, an unethical action, and it had great consequences.

While one can argue that the Burma Embassy in Bangkok is Burmese territory (this is technically the case according to accepted diplomatic protocol), taking the fight to another sovereign nation was a great affront to that nation and entailed all manner of risk. Also, participants in a war, even if their participation is fully justified because they are fighting in self-defense, are still obliged to act ethically. In this regard, it is unethical to involve non-combatants (or to employ torture). The VBSW took prisoners - hostages - including Thai staff resident at the Embassy, and foreign tourists and Thai businesspeople who were applying for Burmese visas. This was unethical, and unacceptable.

In addition, the consequences which developed from the action were extreme. The takeover of the Embassy in broad daylight caused the Thai government to lose a tremendous amount of face, and as their subsequent actions demonstrated, they were very upset. The Burmese army launched an assault on the area where the VBSW had taken refuge and the Thais supported this fully, even shelling the group and their local supporters from the Thai side of the border. The VBSW and their allies were being attacked from both sides. Suffering great losses, and in desperation, they sent a group which re-entered Thailand, commandeered a vehicle, and proceeded to a hospital in the nearby town of Ratchaburi. They launched an action on the hospital, reportedly to get doctors to accompany them back to Burma to treat their wounded. The hospital was sealed by the Thai police, and in the dead of night Thai commandos conducted a raid. Accounts suggest that the group surrendered, without anyone present inside the hospital having been injured. Their dead and naked bodies, wrapped in bedsheets, were brought out the next morning. The Thai government got its revenge for the slight it had suffered.

The consequences did not end there, though. Demonstrations at the Embassy, previously a regular occurrence, were prohibited. (In the Summer of 2001, a small demo was held at the embassy by Amnesty International.) Burmese students exiled in Thailand and resident at a location called Maneeloy, were put under conditions approximating that of a prison camp. Under great pressure from the Thai government, most of them have been relocated to other countries and given refugee status. (Many would have preferred to stay close to their homeland.) There was a crackdown on - the forcible closure of - democracy and human rights groups, both Burmese and foreign, particularly in Chiang Mai. And lastly, the Thai government engaged in a series of draconian round-ups of Burmese workers in the country, deporting them back to Burma and an uncertain fate at the hands of the dictatorship.

Dictator Watch happened to be in Bangkok at the time of the Embassy takeover, heard news of it on television, and rushed to the scene, documenting some of the events which followed.


This is the helicopter that flew the VBSW, and hostage foreign tourists, to the border.



The embassy takeover was a major media event.



There was extensive security, but the general atmosphere was remarkably calm.



Negotiation was handled my senior police on-site, in continuous contact with the leaders of the country.



This brave individual did the actual direct negotiation with the VBSW.



There was a real concern that the Thai commandos would launch an attack and that some people might be killed.
This individual, one of the hostages, personally negotiated with the police and got them to back off.
He was a hero, playing a major role in ensuring that the takeover ended peacefully.



The commandos were ready, but were held off.
This was not to be the case, later in Ratchaburi, away from the lights of Bangkok and the cameras of the media.



© Roland O. Watson 2001-3