Freedom bitter-sweet for Myanmar activist

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By Felipe Villamor (AFP)

Ko Ko Gyi said he and other prominent former student leaders would give their full support to Aung San Suu Kyi (AFP/File)

YANGON — For veteran dissident Ko Ko Gyi, freedom after almost two decades behind bars has brought guarded optimism about Myanmar’s future, and no thoughts of revenge against the regime.

The former student activist, one of hundreds of political prisoners released in January in the country formerly known as Burma, said that he was ready for reconciliation if the quasi-civilian government continues its reforms.

“We had a bitter experience for a very long time, but we can forgive, not only myself, but also my comrades,” he told AFP in an interview.

“We do not want to dwell on the past, but instead face the brighter future… It is not going to be easy to forget, and we say that if we have to engage in politics the time is now, not in the past.”

Ko Ko Gyi said he and other prominent former student leaders who were at the vanguard of a failed 1988 uprising would give their full support to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is standing for a seat in parliament for the first time in April 1 by-elections, as well as to a new generation of activists.

“There is now a change of guard on the streets from us to the younger generation,” he said.

“I am now 50 for example. I am now more engaged in politics in this democratic space, but we welcome the involvement of more and more younger students to this cause.”

He said his group would engage with civil society and pointed to the government’s decision last year to halt a Chinese-backed mega-dam in response to public opposition as an example of the potential of people power.

But more than a month after he was freed along with hundreds of other political detainees, Ko Ko Gyi said he had yet to enjoy true liberty.

“Freedom? There is no new freedom. Sometimes they are still watching,” he said at his home in Yangon, referring to intelligence agents in civilian clothes he believes have been assigned to watch him.

Ko Ko Gyi lost the best years of his youth in jail, and has seen many of his fellow activists succumb to both physical and mental torture.

He hides his pain beneath an easy smile and a piercing set of eyes that quickly spot even the smallest of movements, a typical trait among those who have spent many years in detention.

“The images still reflect in my mind. I hear prison voices in my head, and I still hear the clanging of cell doors in the morning and in the evening,” he said.

As 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 1988.

The military brutally crushed the peaceful protests, leaving thousands of people dead.

Ko Ko Gyi was detained for 44 days the following year for his role in the rallies. He was arrested again in 1991 for his activism and sentenced to two decades in jail with hard labour.

He was released after more than 13 years behind bars, but was detained again in 2007 for supporting the “Saffron Revolution” monk-led protests the same year, which also triggered a bloody military crackdown.

Fellow student leader Min Ko Naing, who headed the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was jailed for 16 years over the 1988 protests. He was also arrested in 2007 and freed in January this year.

Ko Ko Gyi said he and his colleagues were routinely tortured, but what hurt more was not knowing when he would see his family and friends again, and watching fellow activists lose their minds while in prison.

His parents died one after the other while he was locked up, leaving his younger brother to support the family financially while he languished in jail.

“I am single. I have never married because there was no time to find a suitable partner or to get married. I lost my youth,” he said.

Ko Ko Gyi said compared with many of those imprisoned for criminal offences, the political detainees were closely watched and were allowed fewer visitors.

But as Myanmar faced tighter international scrutiny over its tentative steps towards reforms, his jailers allowed small concessions, including access to books.

“Inside, my companions were Gandhi and Mandela,” Ko Ko Gyi confided, referring to former South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi.

When he was much younger Ko Ko Gyi was impressed by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his rebellion launched with only 12 rifles, though he said his own experience had taught him to be more pragmatic.

The release of Ko Ko Gyi and other political prisoners is part of a raft of reforms by the regime that has included allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to return to mainstream politics and giving more freedom to the media.

He said that while the number of seats at stake in the April polls, 48, was not enough to change the balance of power in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi’s inclusion — if she wins a seat as widely expected — would be significant.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s voice is not the same as the others. It carries a heavier weight… So we believe she can represent in the parliament on behalf of the democratic groups.”

Ko Ko Gyi feels that while change is in the air, the reforms have yet to be felt by ordinary people, and are in part driven by a desire by the regime to improve ties with the West and attract more investment and tourists.

“When I was freed from prison in January, there were so many flash bulbs and so many young journalists who surrounded us. This was a strange situation, and I have never been used to being exposed. So yes, there are some changes instituted that we need to recognise,” he said.

“But more needs to be done. There is simply no other choice,” he said, as three police officers walked slowly in front of his house.

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