Ko Ko Gyi: Changing face of Burma

Iconic student leader Ko Ko Gyi was among hundreds of political prisoners released in a far-reaching amnesty on 13 January. The activist, a founder of the 88 Generation Students’ Group and a pivotal figure in both the 1988 and 2007 uprising, had spent four and a half years of a 65-year sentence in prison prior to his latest release. During that time he was tortured and suffered regular bouts of poor health. Prior to his arrest in August 2007 during the early stages of the uprising, he told reporters: “We paid the price with our families, our youth and our society. But we are satisfied with that sacrifice .” Now 50, he spoke to DVB about developments in Burma during his incarceration, and whether prison has sapped his drive to demand greater change in Burma.

Your release is hailed as a key indicator of progress in Burma. Are you yourself optimistic about what changed while you were behind bars?

This release is a positive sign but the government still has to do a lot to normalise relations with foreign governments and end sanctions. Also they have already got what they want with the 2008 constitution and the 2010 election results so they have some big issues off their minds. Some of the top officials however realise they have to one day change this constitution – it cannot resolve the ethnic problems and achieve democracy.

Will Aung San Suu Kyi be able to have any impact on the constitution if she enters parliament?

This is her personal sacrifice. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has entered the by-elections, but there is only a very narrow portion of seats [in parliament] available – only 48. But at the same time, there is a big opportunity in the by-elections to deal with certain problems, and local people will have the chance to organise and support the transition to democracy.

She has to approach the by-elections very cautiously I think – the government can get some advantages from her entering parliament and create a good image of itself for the outside world.

What about yours and Min Ko Naing’s future? Will you enter politics?

The name of 88 Generation Students remains, but we are all around 50 years-old so we have to transform our movement in order to engage in future Burmese politics. But at the same time we have to discuss the reunion of 88 Generation group – those of us who were released from different prisons – and then we can figure out what we will do.

I think we have more strength to carry on now we have spent time in prison. I’ve already told people we have to look at other options for democracy: one way is the by-elections through parliament, but on the other hand we have to continue our demands for democracy, with the sort of activism used in the Save the Irrawaddy campaign. We don’t need to take to the streets necessarily, but launch signature campaigns and use the openings in freedom of expression. And we have to try to campaign to release the [political] prisoners left in prison.

In jail did you get any understanding of what was happening in the outside world, and the changes in Burma?

In prison we just got some hints of news and information. I was in a remote prison, so for example, newspapers issued by the government were one month late. So sporadically I got some journals and newspapers from media and got some information about the dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Thein Sein, and also the [National League for Democracy’s decision to join] by-elections.

The wardens in are very scared to deal with the political prisoners because we live in solitary confinement. This time I spent around four and a half years in prison – my family could not visit. Before I arrived there, some former military intelligence people had been detained, and when I arrived they were sent to another prison and they emptied the cell compound – altogether four cell rooms, roughly a 50 by 50 feet compound. I was in there alone at the beginning, but then they transferred some political prisoners. So altogether there were five political prisoners living together. Then they began to leave, so I was the only political prisoner left in my cell compound.

Could you engage with inmates on political issues, and organise from inside your cell?

When we altogether lived in prison, we discussed about news we got from outside. But the main discussion was about prison conditions, and what was going on inside the prison.

Now you are out, do you see the political environment as freer, or does the threat of jail still exist for activists?

At the airport I was shocked to encounter the media and journalists – this was the first sign of progress upon my release from prison. When we were arrested this situation was never seen in Burma. The media freedom can help to promote democracy, and for this I am very optimistic.

But nobody knows who are real reformists and who aren’t so we have some concerns about not seeing these changes reversed – we have to encourage these reformists as much as possible.

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