Myanmar's former political prisoners weigh next steps ahead of polls

As Myanmar prepares for April 1 parliamentary elections, many former political prisoners are deciding how to continue their activism.

“I felt nothing, really, when I was told I was to be released," says Mya Aye, one of Myanmar's best-known political prisoners, who was among some 300 detainees freed on Jan. 13 in a surprise release.

The amnesty came after an October release of more than 200 political prisoners by what seems to be a reform-inclined Myanmar government. The releases are being taken as a signal that the government is on a gradual transition to democracy after five decades of military rule. 

But Mr. Mya Aye, as with most of his generation of activists who are now free, isn’t too impressed. As Myanmar (Burma) prepares for April 1 elections in the  military-dominated parliament, activists are mulling over what to do.  “Our arrest was because of politics and so was our release,” he says.

Sitting across the room in Mya Aye's upstairs apartment is Pyone Cho, an old friend. Both men took part in student demonstrations against military rule in 1988 – an uprising that was crushed by the Army, which gunned down an estimated 3,000 civilians.

The repeated arrests and releases

The camaraderie between the two 40-somethings is visible as they crack jokes that touch back to that first arrest almost a quarter-century ago. Taking up the story as Mya Aye ambles to his kitchen where his wife is cooking brunch, Pyone Cho says, “you know, I got married in 2007, but only four months later I was arrested.” 

Like Mya Aye and many other dissidents of his generation, the “88 Generation,” named for the year of their mass protest, were arrested only to be freed and re-arrested numerous times in the intervening years. In the middle of one of his releases he married his wife, but was jailed from August 2007 until just one month ago.

 “I hardly got to see my wife, oh how much I am missing her,” he says. 

As he was jailed 500 miles away from Yangon, in Kawthaung prison in Myanmar's far south, his wife could not always make the monthly visit allowed by the authorities.

Political prisoners believe that they were sent to remote jails to increase the sense of isolation and loneliness during jail-time. Many political prisoners say they were tortured when imprisoned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For the most part during recent stints they were not physically harmed.

Tthe conditions were far from trauma free, however. “Last year, everyone knew that my mother died,” says Min Zeya, as he stirs his coffee at one of downtown Yangon's few Western-style cafes.

Outside, 20- and 30-year-old cars and buses sputter and backfire through Yangon's streets, under the shade of fading old colonial-style facades blackened by smoke and looking as if they haven't been painted since Min Zeya first saw the inside of a Myanmar jail. 

His mother died in May, but when his wife telephoned a message to the prison authorities, they did not pass on the news. “It was on BBC, VOA, on the Burmese exile media,” he says, “but I only knew a month later when the family of another prisoner passed the news to the other prisoner, who then told me,” he says.

Moving forward

He said that he and others are not dwelling on the past, however, and with most of the famed 88 Generation free again, many are mulling what to do next. “Some will work with NGOs, some will work with the media, some will go to politics,” says Min Zeya.

Sandar Min, in her early 40s, is one of the youngest of that 88 Generation group of protesters. 

She was asked by Aung San Suu Kyi to run as a candidate for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, in the upcoming election.

“I am 100 percent confident I can win” a seat, she says, despite being asked to run in Naypyidaw, the country's purpose-built administrative capital, where on the surface it might be expected that the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would win and supplement an almost 80 percent hold on the legislature.

Some of Myanmar's recently freed political prisoners are much younger than the 88 Generation. Phyo Phyo Aung was born in 1988, right in the middle of those heady but ultimately blood-drenched days. The day after Ms. Phyo Phyo Aung was born, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first major political speech in the country then known as Burma, to an estimated half-million people in front of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's main Buddhist shrine.

Phyo Phyo Aung was arrested in 2008 en route back to Yangon from the disaster-stricken Irrawaddy delta, where at least 140,000 people had died during a devastating May 2008 cyclone. 

“We went to help bury bodies of the dead, and to bring aid to the survivors,” she recalls. Then just 20, she was given a four-year jail term for charges that included communicating with foreign journalists and 88 Generation leaders.

At the time, the Myanmar government drew international condemnation for stalling relief offers from outside, and for not doing enough to help the estimated 3 million people left homeless after Cyclone Nargis.

Phyo Phyo Aung is back in political work and is now heading up a student organization aiming to raise political awareness in Myanmar. She says she hopes that the reforms undertaken by the government will continue, but cautions that “there are many laws still in place that mean we could be arrested again for the same reasons as before.” 

Sandar Min believes the reform process could be a new start for Myanmar, breaking a 50-year cycle of Army-backed repression and arbitrary arrest. But, she says it’s important to remember that there are still at least 270 political prisoners in Myanmar's jails, according to NLD party figures, and that in itself shows that Myanmar's reforms have a long way to go. “I will work to get them freed, if I can get elected,” she says.  

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