Former political prisoners from the so-called 88 Generation have gradually emerged as significant players on the changing terrain of reform in Myanmar reform, throwing their support behind ordinary citizens who express their grievances.
88 Generation activists Min Ko Naing (seated third left), Ko Ko Gyi (seated third right) and Htay Kywe (seated second left), attend a news conference in Yangon in January last year.
Whether the country is ready or not, whether the people are ready or not, the parliamentary system is now a key decision-making apparatus in a country that until recently was one of the world’s most repressive, says Ko Ko Gyi, a core leader of the 88 Generation.
“To make the system work sustainably and for the sake of the people, we need to encourage the people to regain their bravery to speak up against all odds,” he said during a recent visit to Thailand.
“It has been such a long time that they think they don’t have a chance to argue with the authorities or military.”
As a vice-president of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, Ko Ko Gyi was one of the most prominent activists who stood up to the junta in events leading up to the general strike that began on August 8, 1988. In clashes and crackdowns that followed over the next six weeks, thousands of people were killed.
Ko Ko Gyi was detained for 44 days the following year for his role in the rallies. He was arrested again in 1991 and sentenced to two decades in jail with hard labour. He was released after more than 13 years behind bars, but was detained again for supporting the “Saffron Revolution” the same year and finally freed in January 2012.
During their first year of liberty, he and his colleagues, including Min Ko Naing, the former ABSDF chair, have been travelling around the country meeting with all types of people including the authorities, monks, military and ethnic groups.
Ko Ko Gyi said the prevailing conflicts such as clashes between Kachin residents and the military, the monk-led uprising against a copper mine in the northwest, and various labour disputes, were not fresh problems.
“The problems have been with us for a long time, but a little window of opportunity is just opening up. That includes the release of political prisoners, more media freedom, and the welcoming and facilitation of exiles and dissidents to revisit or return to the country,” said the activist.
However, he said the prospects for socio-political change were still limited and difficult to achieve despite the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition parliamentarians in the Hluttaw in Nay Pi Taw.
The most important thing is to change the Tatmadaw-drafted constitution, he said, referring to the army, but that was not in the sight just yet.
In the meantime, veteran activists such as Ko Ko Kyi are aiming to maximise their personal contacts and leverage to reach out to various civil society and ethnic groups around the nation to further the course of democratisation.
“While we cannot ignore the institutional system and framework, we cannot rely totally on these mechanisms to deliver [democracy],” he said, adding that the vacuum was being filled by the 88 Generation.
Issues that he and his peers are working on include getting people a greater say over dam construction, fighting and exposing land grabbing, and mediating labour disputes.
Even though the government has already embarked on truces and reconciliation efforts with ethnic groups, Ko Ko Gyi believes talks about arms reduction and decommissioning are not adequate as they deal with the elites while grassroots voices are generally left out.
“It’s time to create and maintain momentum for street voices to be heard, as more space and room has opened up. But it surely takes time,” said Ko Ko Gyi, who rebutted some notions about the group setting up a new political party.
He said the 88 Generation was working without proper legal status — it has no formal accreditation as an NGO or a political party — but some friends might opt out to work in different capacities along the way, and some may even become politicians.
Some issues are particularly divisive, such as the status of the Rohingya in the western part of the country. Elaborating on comments he made last November, Ko Ko Gyi said there were aspects that all sides needed to scrutinise, beyond just some superficial circumstances.
“It is not a racial or religious conflict. It’s an unfortunate historical legacy. We need to implement the citizenship law and those (Rohingya) who are entitled under the law should get it, those who are not entitled should not be included,” said Ko Ko Gyi, who is a member of a committee set up by President Thein Sein to address the conflict in Rakhine state. It hopes to make some recommendations by March, he said.
While some inside the country have a cautious and realistic view about the path ahead, outsiders such as exile Bo Kyi, a former student leader now based in Mae Sot in Thailand, continues to look at conditions in his native land with grave concern.
“The current situation in Burma is worse,” said Bo Kyi, who prefers to call the country by its former name. “The civil war is really tense in Kachin and Shan states. Human rights violations committed by Burmese soldiers, police forces and government agents are widespread all across Burma.”
Myanmar’s main problem is its constitutional crisis, said Bo Kyi, who spent nearly eight years in prison before escaping to Thailand and co-founding the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
“If we cannot achieve security sector reform and if the government does not want to change its constitution, the 2015 election will not lead to the democratic path,” he warned.
“As long as the army is above the law, Burma cannot achieve peace and national reconciliation.”
Former prisoners get help starting new lives
Issues such as dam construction, land grabs and labour disputes are priorities for activists such as Ko Ko Gyi.
A group of sympathisers with connections inside and outside Myanmar, including Thailand, has been providing some token financial assistance to families of thousands of political prisoners for the past decades. Now that most of the prisoners have been released, attempts are being shifted to find jobs for them.
The Golden Harp was created shortly after the historic and high-profile political prisoner release in January 2012, aimed at providing newly freed citizens with the resources they need to become self-supporting.
Kyaw Soe, a driver and former political prisoner, said the Golden Harp was a kind of social entrepreneurship programme that extended microcredit to allow the former political prisoners to work as guides and taxi drivers throughout Myanmar.
“The Golden Harp ensures that we are not forgotten and are given a fair chance to resume our lives after prison,” said the former history student who was locked up for more than a decade.
Those being helped by the programme receive loans of up to US$800 per person and can repay the sum in small installments of $18-20 a month over a year or more.
About the author
Writer: Achara Ashayagachat