Bound and Gagged Although the Burmese military regime released Aung San Suu Kyi, it is still keeping student movement leaders such as Ko Ko Gyi out of sight and effectively incommunicado in remote prisons By BA KAUNG
e 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. “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 protests at Rangoon University urging the regime to transfer power to the NLD after the opposition party won the 1990 election. Sentenced to 20 years in jail, he was first held in Insein Prison in Rangoon and then in Thayet Prison in Central Burma.