In one of the many rooms of Burma’s massive parliament building in Naypyidaw, the country’s sprawling military-designed capital, Bo Bo Oo is busy reviewing a stack of letters on his desk.
The newly minted National League for Democracy (NLD) lower house MP is going through numerous invitations, meeting requests from foreign embassies, and several letters from businessmen seeking appointments.
Bo Bo Oo, the secretary of the lower house’s International Relations Committee, said he would politely decline the latter since he does not want to be persuaded into serving any business interests. “Many positive things are coming our way. It is very important that we are not tempted by some of them,” he said.
For the 52-year-old, his new place in the halls of power presents a sharp contrast with how he spent most of his adult life. Bo Bo Oo was jailed by the former military junta at age 26 for participating in the 1988 democratic uprising; from 1989 to 2009 he was held in different prisons across the country.
“These days, people often ask me if I ever imagined these changes in the past. I say I never even thought about it,” he told Myanmar Now in an interview in the capital.
Bo Bo Oo’s move from the dank, dark prison cells to a key legislative position is dramatic, but he is just one of many former political prisoners in Burma who suddenly find themselves with great legislative and executive powers after their NLD party won a resounding election win last year.
The former inmates turned politicians are now faced with the tremendous task of reforming and developing a country left crippled by decades of authoritarian rule, conflict and economic mismanagement. While doing so, they have contend with a still powerful military.
20 years behind bars
Bo Bo Oo came from a wealthy Rangoon family and was a final year English major student at Rangoon University when the ’88 uprising changed his life. Like so many students of his generation, he spent the prime of his life behind bars, and it changed his goals forever.
“My childhood dream was to become a successful businessman, but for the sake of democracy and human rights, I became involved in politics,” he said.
During his long incarceration, he experienced solitary confinement, hunger and illness, and saw friends die due to ill treatment. While in prison, his father passed away and his then-wife, the daughter of a top-ranking military officer, abandoned him.
When he was released in 2009, he married a former political prisoner who was set free on the same day. He opened an art gallery in Rangoon and immediately returned to politics.
Bo Bo Oo became an active member of the NLD and is known for his social skills and organisational capacities. He became a member of the party’s disciplinary committee for Rangoon and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi put him in charge of organising fundraising events.
In the 2015 elections, he won a lower house seat in Rangoon’s Sanchaung Township.
Former prisoners under the same roof again
Now, he lives with many other new lawmakers at the residential quarters in Naypyidaw, located a few miles from parliament. These house many longtime NLD members, some of whom are former cell mates.
The residences are so simple that they have been compared to students hostels; they have bare concrete floors, an attached toilet, and three wooden single bedsteads. Most MPs do not bring their families to the remote capital and its spartan government residences.
“One thing that is similar to prison life is that you have to sleep all alone at night. We have no social life, no personal life, here. I swim or read for leisure,” Bo Bo Oo said. “Sometimes, I cannot sleep at night because it is too hot,” he said about his room, which is only equipped with one electric ceiling fan.
But Bo Bo Oo quickly brushed away comparisons with prison to express his joy about being part of democratically elected parliament. “Everything is so good now,” he said.
Bo Bo Oo is the NLD’s party whip for lower and upper house NLD MPs from Rangoon Division, an important position that sees him ensure that lawmakers follow the party leadership. Every Monday, he manually delivers the NLD’s weekly paper, D-Wave, to each MP, so that they stay informed of the party’s plans.
Fighting corruption among the newly powerful NLD MPs is another important task, he said, adding that he regularly meets with more than 50 lawmakers to brief them on party plans and check on their personal situation.
“Bribery and corruption can sometimes happen due to individual difficulties. That’s why I ask my fellow members of parliament to tell me if they need money, and I would lend them some. It’s very important; [being incorruptible] is the lifeblood of our party,” he said.
Bo Bo Oo is hopeful that the NLD government and the party’s parliamentary majority will be able to push through comprehensive reforms, despite resistance from the army, which controls a quarter of parliament and many other levers of power.
“Bit by bit, things will improve. I am full of optimism about the country’s future,” he said, before adding that sometimes he is overcome with sadness when he remembers those who died in prison before they could witness democratic change.
Asked whether he wants the army generals responsible for their deaths to be brought to justice, Bo Bo Oo shook his head and said the focus should be on national reconciliation.
“We must let go of the past. Seeking redress is a form of revenge. It is still a very delicate job to make sure that the generals exit smoothly [from the political stage],” he said.