Lone Sikh joins monks' fight for democracy

The Times of India, Oct 23, 2007

JALANDHAR, India -- As the world watched media images of clean-shaven Buddhist monks in maroon marching down Yangon's streets demanding democracy in Myanmar, the attention of some was drawn to a bearded, turbaned man. Incongruous as it seemed, it was a Sikh fighting with the pro-democracy agitators.

And, although few might have heard of him in India, he's well known in Myanmar, hailed as — U Pancha (the Punjabi).

Surinder Karkar Singh, also known as Ayea Myint and U Pancha, was one with the Myanmarese marching down the streets during those eight days in September, providing "civilian protection ring" to the monks, and was later identified and reported on by the Australian media.

According to a report in Brisbane Times, U Pancha, a veteran of mass protests in 1988, waited in Yangon, hiding until October 4 to see the outcome of the UN mission led by the UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. He was bitterly disappointed with the lack of outcome favourable to the agitators from the envoy's visit and, after the movement began fizzling out, left for Mai Set in Thailand to evade arrest. But he's determined to fight on. "We are only pausing, not surrendering," he said.

The 43-year-old Sikh-Burmese slammed the UN envoy saying, "Nothing was achieved. He did whatever the regime told him. While he was there, we were being shot, arrested. After he left, more people were arrested."

Pancha even called on Gambari to state what the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had told him during their two meetings in Myanmar. According to the report, he gave some rare insights into the first days of
the protests, and how the organisers responded as the movement grew.

"I was in the forefront, I was prepared to die," he said. He met monks and a few civilians at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist temple in Yangon, on Monday, September 17.

"The idea was to bring down petrol prices, to get a dialogue going, and an apology for the way the monks were beaten up at Pakokku. There were only about a hundred to start with," he said. "We let the monks lead."

He has meticulous details of the latest pro-democracy struggle, saying on September 26, that nearly 100,000 civilians marched with 5,000 to 6,000 monks. "People were not scared. I thought we were winning — in the midst of flying bullets we were able to march. We had people on side streets, with stones and rocks ready to defend the protesters."

But, on Thursday, September 27, the monks were gone, and the crowd dwindled to between 2,000 and 3,000. "Many people were scared," he said. "When the Japanese (photographer Kenji Nagai) was shot, they knew the government would shoot even foreigners." By Friday, the movement had all but disintegrated. But Pancha hasn't given up on the hope of fighting for democracy another day.

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