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Bound and Gagged

Although the Burmese military regime released Aung San Suu Kyi, it is still keeping 88 Generation Students group leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi out of sight and effectively incommunicado in remote prisons. Both played key roles in the 1988 anti-government uprising and are currently serving 65-year sentences for leading 2007 protests against a sudden increase in fuel prices just prior to the nationwide democracy protests led by Buddhist monks that became known as the Saffron Revolution. Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi were not released from prison under the government amnesty granted to over 6,000 prisoners on Wednesday. Below is a reprint of a feature story about Ko Ko Gyi that appeared in The Irrawaddy print edition in March 2011.

We have a long tradition of expecting the arrival of a king [to lead us in times of difficulties],” Ko Ko Gyi told a crowd of pro-democracy activists packed into a Rangoon house in 2007. “But democracy does not come from someone else. We ourselves must strive to achieve the thing which in English we call our ‘birthright.’”
Shortly after speaking these words, the man who is viewed as one of the main strategists behind Burma’s student-led opposition groups found himself at the Rangoon airport, hands cuffed and legs in shackles, with a police officer using an iron chain to drag him to an airplane like a dog.
The Burmese military regime was shipping Ko Ko Gyi off to the remote Mai Sat Prison in eastern Shan State to serve a 65-year, six-month prison sentence for the “crime” of participating in a peaceful 2007 protest against an unannounced rise in fuel prices. He was officially charged with breaking Burma’s Electronics Act for issuing three political statements using his G-mail account.

Ko Ko Gyi’s political life officially began in March 1988, when two Rangoon Institute of Technology students were killed during a police crackdown on a small campus protest. Afterward, Ko Ko Gyi and some fellow Rangoon University students held a peaceful strike on campus on March 15, 1988 to demand an official investigation into the incident.

Then on Aug. 8, 1988—the day that the Burmese student unions called for a mass uprising—Ko Ko Gyi went to Rangoon University, stood on a jeep and gave a 15-minute speech emphasizing the importance of a democratic transition and demanding the official re-establishment of the banned student unions.
“He talked about national reconciliation and said that dialogue was the only way to resolve Burma’s crisis peacefully,” said Bo Kyi, a former Burmese political prisoner who is now the joint-secretary of the Thailand-based Association of Assistance for Political Prisoners in Burma.

In early September 1988, U Nu—Burma’s first democratically elected prime minister who had been removed from power by Ne Win’s military coup—announced the formation of an interim government. Ko Ko Gyi promptly threw his support behind U Nu, even traveling to Pegu Division to campaign for public backing of the interim government, and was said to be indignant upon hearing that Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just emerged as a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement, did not support U Nu’s bold move.
“He even went to meet Suu Kyi and openly asked her why she said on the BBC that ‘she did not understand’ U Nu’s government,” said Ba Nyar, a political prisoner who spent time in jail with Ko Ko Gyi. “He said to Daw Suu: ‘The military seized power from the people and now it is going back to the people. Why can’t you accept that?’”

Despite his criticism, however, Ko Ko Gyi still supported Suu Kyi. Tin Oo, the deputy leader of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), recalled the time around 1989 when he, Suu Kyi and Ko Ko Gyi gave political speeches together.

“I remember he was smart in articulating his views,” said Tin Oo, adding that the NLD owes a debt of gratitude to the efforts of students like Ko Ko Gyi. “If it weren’t for these students’ activities, the NLD would not have come into existence.”

Ko Ko Gyi was arrested in 1991 for his involvement in anti-government protests at Rangoon University following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Suu Kyi. Sentenced to 20 years in jail, he was first held in Insein Prison in Rangoon and then in Thayet Prison in Central Burma.

Colleagues close to Ko Ko Gyi describe him as a devout Buddhist with a strong connection with young monks who some believed was behind the Sangha patta ni kozana kan boycott in 1990.

In contrast to many student activists of the 1988 generation, he is unsympathetic to communism.
After his release from prison in 2005, Ko Ko Gyi and the charasmatic student leader Min Ko Naing formed the 88 Generation Students group. The group’s activities—including its call for the public to directly send social justice complaints to the military chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe—reignited the opposition movement’s political momentum, which had slowed since Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 2003.

“We are not afraid of being arrested again,” Ko Ko Gyi said in September 2006. “We know how to survive in prison because we have spent 14 to 15 years behind bars. We are only worried that we cannot work for the people of Burma.”

Nervous about the wave of support building behind the 88 Generation Students group, the junta made sure that Ko Ko Gyi’s concerns became a reality, as both he and Min Ko Naing found themselves behind bars once again in 2007.

During his initial years of incarceration, Ko Ko Gyi had been held in prisons close enough to home for his friends and family to visit. But this time the Burmese authorities seemed determined to ensure that the student movement leaders were as out of sight and incommunicado as possible, sending them to separate remote prisons.

There is a definite method to the junta’s madness. By isolating Ko Ko Gyi and limiting his contacts with colleagues, the regime has taken away one of the student leader’s main strengths. Fellow activists said he is at his best in political discussions among small groups, because while he speaks slowly and clearly with sound argument, his slightly tense and subdued constitution and appearance make him a less powerful public speaker than his captivating and inspirational counterpart, Min Ko Naing.

In his own way, however, Ko Ko Gyi is a leader, as evidenced by his propensity to chart his own course rather than follow the crowd or conventional wisdom. For example, in contrast to many students who went into the jungles and took up arms against the regime in the aftermath of the failed 1988 uprising, Ko Ko Gyi stuck to his strong belief in finding solutions to the country’s political deadlock by political means only—although he has told cell mates that he would support armed struggle if he felt it would lead to the desired political outcome.

In addition, a US diplomatic cable from Rangoon leaked by Wikileaks late last year suggested that Ko Ko Gyi voiced his support among fellow political prisoners for opposition participation in the controversial 2010 elections, which Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted.

If it is true that Ko Ko Gyi supported the election and was somewhat optimistic about Burma’s post-election scenario, this may undercut his informal role as a main political strategist for the student-led opposition movement, because the regime has shown no inclination to open up the country to true democracy either before, during or after the election.

But recently released political prisoners said that Ko Ko Gyi’s apparent support for the elections was quoted out of context. They said he only supported participation in polls on the pre-election conditions that political prisoners were released, a review of the 2008 Constitution took place and all political parties and their members were allowed to freely participate in the election.

If Ko Ko Gyi had supported the 2010 elections without these conditions, it is unlikely the regime would be taking such pains to continue to keep him muzzled.

The regime is clearly afraid that if the duo of Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing is released, they could team up with Suu Kyi to form a formidable opposition movement that could inspire future mass anti-government movements. In addition, given Suu Kyi’s advancing age, either could step into her role as national leader.
“In light of their personal sacrifices and political history, there is every possibility that student leaders like Ko Ko Gyi would become the country’s national leaders,” said Tin Oo.

Ko Ko Gyi once said: “A constitution should embody the dignity and political standards of a country and its citizens.... Flexibility and malleability are the keys.”

For now, there is no sign in Burma’s post-election political landscape of the ruling generals becoming flexible or malleable. There is also no sign that Ko Ko Gyi will be released anytime soon. And that may be the best testimony of his value to the pro-democracy movement and his danger to the regime.


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