Burma’s Former Political Prisoners: From Protest to Parliament

by Seinenu Thein-Lemelson, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Scholar
University of California, Berkeley

In Burma, a political movement that began in 1988 among a group of university students, reached fruition on November 8th, 2015 when candidates from the National League for Democracy were victorious in a landslide victory against the military-backed ruling party. This newly elected civilian government includes many former political prisoners. Over one hundred members of parliament, including the Speaker of the House, were jailed by the former military junta. Likewise, many key posts in the ministries are held by individuals who were imprisoned for decades, under brutal conditions, spending years in solitary confinement, and denied basic food, sanitation, medical care, and other provisions. Most notably, Burma’s new State Counselor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent over fifteen years under house arrest.

Burma poster Never Forget Never Give up August 8th

Burma’s dissidents accomplished what many other political movements have failed to do. The Burmese pro-democracy movement is one of few resistance movements in modern history whereby activists have transitioned from marching in opposition to power-holders to holding key government positions. Given the scarcity of successful political movements, it is important to contemplate Burma’s twenty-five-year struggle for freedom and examine how individual activists remained resilient over time.

I have observed the workings of the Burmese democracy movement up close, not as a fellow activist, but as a researcher, anthropologist, friend, and family member. In early 2013, while taking a break from my Ph.D. studies at UCLA, I returned to Burma to volunteer for a capacity building project. While I was organizing seminars on constitutional reform, I met some of the former student leaders of the 1988 Uprising and began hearing narratives about the atrocities that they had experienced in prison and during the protests. I learned that I had family members who had also been imprisoned. My cousin was a student leader of the 1988 Uprising and jailed for three years. My uncle was a close confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi’s in the early days of the democracy movement, elected to parliament during the 1990 elections, and was held as a prisoner of conscience for six years.

My uncle and cousin managed to escape from Burma after their release from prison, but thousands of activists, including many prominent leaders, refused to go into exile. Pyone Cho, a former student leader of the 1988 Uprising and one of my first friends in the movement, was imprisoned for a total of 20 years. His first 14 years in prison was as a young man, from age 21 to 36. Spending one’s entire adult life in prison, including long stretches in solitary confinement, would vanquish most people, but for Pyone Cho, his time in prison deepened his commitment. After his release, he and other like-minded activists began meeting in local teashops again to discuss politics. They eventually began organizing peaceful campaigns as they had done during their student days. Because there were laws that prohibited freedom of assembly, they focused their efforts on signature campaigns and other activities that would not require large rallies or marches. During the “White Campaign”, for example, Pyone Cho and other activists donned white shirts (the color of prison uniforms in Burma) and visited families of remaining political prisoners in order give them moral and emotional support. They articulated a vision for and narrative of the democracy movement whereby political prisoners were cast as “heroes” and those who had perished in the prisons were regarded as “martyrs”. Whereas in neighboring countries like Indonesia former political prisoners are often shunned, in Burma, they are valorized. When former political prisoners are released, family and friends gather and give them a hero’s welcoming, handing them bouquets of roses and wreathes of starflower. Pyone Cho and other political prisoners continue to wear white during ceremonies and group events to memorialize their own suffering—transforming what was once a symbol of their oppression into an insignia of pride.

Indeed, as with many other dissident communities, maintaining a sense of pride in their group identity has been key to their resilience. This pride and the deep sense of authenticity that bolsters it is apparent in the art, writing, and poetry associated with the resistance movement. Unlike in Cambodia, where intellectuals were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, in Burma, the resistance movement was spearheaded by poets, novelists, painters, and journalists. Although many intellectuals perished in the prisons and during the massacres, many more survived. Pyone Cho is a gifted painter and poet. U Win Tin, one of Pyone Cho’s mentors and a founder of the National League for Democracy, is known for his contributions as a journalist and for his biting satire. He is also known for his poetry, much of which he thought up and memorized in prison only to set down on paper after his release (pen, pencil, paper, and books were illegal in Burmese prisons while he and Pyone Cho were detained). In one poem, entitled Fearless Tiger, Win Tin writes: “Do you think I’ll grow blunt in monotony/ Like a caged tiger at the zoo?/ What a laugh! / Remember! / As long as the black stripes / Cut across my yellow bright, / Unmistakable / And clear, / A tiger is a tiger, / And I am / Just the same!”

Both U Win Tin and Pyone Cho are known not only for their activism, resilience, and art, they are also known for their deep kindness and sense of humor. U Win Tin unfortunately did not live to see the 2015 elections. After spending nineteen years in prison and devoting himself to being what others described as the “moral compass” of the democracy movement, he passed away from natural causes a year before Burma held its historic elections. Pyone Cho was imprisoned for six additional years, starting in 2007, after he and his colleagues organized a protest that helped launch what came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. He re-emerged from prison in 2012, with even greater resolve and a boundless warmth and energy that could not be repressed. From 2012 to 2015, he organized rallies for constitutional reform; worked with other activists to document human rights abuses in Burma; and taught classes. He made several trips to Europe and America to reconnect with exiled Burmese activists and to participate in human rights conferences. He returned from his tour of the States and visit to Norway in time to be a pallbearer at U Win Tin’s funeral. In 2015, Pyone Cho ran for election and won a seat in the Lower House of Parliament. One of his greatest accomplishments as a parliamentarian has been helping to overturn the law that placed him, U Win Tin, my uncle, my cousin, and tens of thousands of other dissidents in prison.

Fall 2016

In this issue:

(download pdf of Fall 2016 issue)

Wiener Hacked
Remember September 30th 1991
We Stopped Urban Shield
Polly Irene Taylor
Standing for the Earth, Water and Air: Pipelines and Propositions
LAGAI Supports the Movement for Black Lives Platform
Attn. Prisoners in Georgia
Take Back Oakland
Another racist & sexist gay club
The Largest Prison Strike in u.s. History
Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper
California’s Death Penalty Initiatives
Baby Steps
Attacks on BDS Won’t Quit (and we won’t either)
The MOCHA Column
It’s Time to Free Leonard
Shorts From Inside: Sweet, Sad, Supportive, Sagacious
Trans in Nevada
Darkness in Missouri
Revolutionary Greetings
Forever Activist
Pardon Chelsea Manning!
Worth pondering about…

Wiener Hacked

“Great Junk, Anthony.”

This was just one of the many tweets and emails allegedly sent by California State Senate candidate “scott weiner.” They appeared yesterday on a Wikileaks site under the title “Scott’s Junk Mail.”

editorial sarcasm graphic

Unanimous, the international hackers known for anonymity, said in a statement, “A host of messages have cumm out between Scott and former Congressman and sexter Anthony Weiner. “There is an expected spillover effect resulting from the two Weiners joining together.”

Unanimous took credit for the hack, publishing additional messages, but could find no evidence to support Scott Weiner’s claim to be gay. ‘It’s all just straight-up bullshit,” they said. In response, Scott pointed to his online video with the pokemon go app. “I poked the mon and went,” said Weiner, in a racist imitation of Jamaicans.

FBI director Cum-Ye disputed the claim that Unanimous was behind the hack. “We have definitive proof, or at least some belief, that the hack came from Russia, despite their efforts to squirrel themselves away. We are hot on the trail of Natasha Fatale, a known associate of the infamous, and now believed dead, Boris Badenov.”

Dewey Ward, a spokesperson for LAGAI – Queer Insurrection, once again disputed claims that Weiner is “one of us.” “He’s as queer as Roy Cohn.”

Remember September 30th 1991

September 30, 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was the candidate of Haiti’s popular movement Lavalas in the 1990 presidential election; he won with 67% of the vote. 

Join Haiti Action Committee to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a coup that continues to inform the present struggle of the Haitian people for democracy and justice.

SEPTEMBER 30th – 4:30 PM DEMONSTRATION meets at 14th & Broadway in Oakland

OCTOBER 2nd – 3PM EVENT at Eastside Arts, 2277 International Blvd, Oakland

We Stopped Urban Shield

by Tory

photo of marchers

On September 9, over 500 activists from a wide range of communities descended on the alameda county fair grounds in pleasanton, california at the crack of dawn to disrupt the 10th annual urban shield expo.  urban shield is a heinous military-promoting weapons expo, and tactical training for the police.  Stop Urban Shield is a coalition led by five racial justice organizations: Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Critical Resistance Oakland, BAYAN USA, Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Xicana Moratorium Coalition.

Funded by homeland security, the trade show features an extravaganza of evil gadgets/weapons for the repression of the people, draws police swat teams from all country and internationally including mexico and israel.  For attendees there are displays of such insidious things as, special lighting systems for rounding up homeless people in nighttime encampments, armored vehicle companies displaying 75 different kinds of armored trucks for law enforcement, companies pushing geo spatial software for “intelligence gathering” (read spying on protesters), all manner of gun enterprises, robotic companies….a veritable cornucopia for the evil empire.  In addition the SWAT police have myriad training exercises to better prepare for trying to squash the PEOPLE.

But the people just weren’t having it!  After months of intricate organizing, a complicated plan to disrupt the expo began.  The weapons extravaganza had been kicked out of Oakland in 2014 by the peoples wrath, now it was time to shut it down for good!

As the website for Stop Urban Shield puts it:

“While Urban Shield is just one front in the fight against the state’s attempt to militarize every aspect of our lives – from its war-making here and abroad, to the increasing presence of police in our schools, to the systemic murder of Black and Brown people at the hands of police – stopping Urban Shield would be a major victory against this growing trend of militarization in cities everywhere, from Oakland to Ferguson to Baltimore. Join us in resisting state violence against our communities and in fighting for genuine visions of safety and self-determination.”

The alameda fair grounds is an enormous area.  Imagine trying orchestrate an action that is trying to shut down something the size of golden gate park.  The action was composed of a number of different affinity groups locking down across entrance gates at strategic spots, several groups trying to block entrances to interior buildings and a rally and march which went around the perimeter to the different gates. Bay Area Solidarity Action Teams (BASAT) organized twenty climbers to hang giant banners across the entrance to the buildings and from the clock tower inside.

People from QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) and LAGAI participated in various roles.  Amanda and Clio were medics; Erica carried a QUIT! sign on the march; Deeg, Julie and Tory were security for Asians 4 Black Lives, locked down at the “green gate”, and Kate was support for an affinity group of allies locked down at the “red gate” entrance next to the campground.

At seven in the morning people doing lock-down actions and support people met in the parking lot of an office park near the fairgrounds, waiting for the signal to start from tactical.  People doing the interior actions went first, a large faith based group and the BASAT climbers.  Then suddenly the signal was given, and we jumped into cars and vans and went through the fair gates without stopping and the lock downs were quickly set up.  A total of four lock-downs happened: Third World Resistance blocked the administrative gate where the rally and march began, the clergy and others blocked a building inside the fair grounds, Asians for Black lives and SURJ blocked gates, and the BASAT climbers deftly rerouted to the green gate when they were unable to get to the towers.  They hung there for hours with a giant banner reading: “STOP URBAN SHIELD! NO TO MILITARIZATION!”

The actions began before 8 am and ended about noon. The best chant among many fine chants was:

WE DON’T WANT NO COPS
ROLLING DOWN OUR BLOCKS
WE MAKE THE VIOLENCE STOP
WE DROP IT LIKE ITS HOT.

At about 10 am the artistically dramatic, militant march walked three miles around the outskirts of the fairgrounds visiting and cheering the various locked-down gates. This made the assembled alameda county sheriffs very nervous, too much people power.  Just before noon the sheriffs moved in giving dispersal orders and arresting 13 people from Asians 4 Black Lives.  Earlier the police had arrested 10 people from the clergy group, bringing the total arrests to 23 people, all of whom were cited and released from santa rita jail.

The action was a success not only because of its precision organization and ambitious reach, shutting down such a huge area hosting a malevolent conference, but because in the face of escalated repression the coalition brought together a wide range of groups to stand in solidarity against the empire.  Many issues were visibly linked: Black and brown resistance to killer cops, money for communities’ needs, not for militarized police and jails, urban displacement and police, prioritize health care not police, the role of israeli and usa’s  promotion of militarization worldwide.  The actions succeeded in disrupting the conference; they were forced to shut down parts of it.  We made them hella anxious!  It was not business as usual!  The action got terrific press and was the lead story on local newscasts as well as reported on in many newspapers.

photo of activist blocking gate

The next step for the coalition is to pressure the alameda county board of stupervisors to stop funding urban shield.  People have been packing the board meetings discussing the county budget, demanding the immediate de-funding of urban shield.  A community meeting was held in Oakland on September 19 to talk about future plans. Find out how you can plug in at http://stopurbanshield.org.

THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED

Polly Irene Taylor

photo of Polly

Polly Irene Taylor, a life-long lesbian activist for feminism, peace and social justice, died on July 26, 2016.

Polly was born on May 31, 1929 in Haverford PA into a Quaker family whose beliefs helped to shape her commitment to peace and social justice for all. She graduated from Wellesley in 1951 and later earned an MSW in social work.

In 1961 she started a psychotherapy practice in Buffalo, NY, developing concepts of feminist therapy.  During the Vietnam war she did draft-resistance work including counseling and driving hundreds of young men across the border to Canada.  And in 1977 she and her partner, Marge Nelson, set off in an RV to find other older feminists and lesbians.  Deciding that San Francisco was their best bet, they settled here in 1978 and never left.  Polly was active in the struggle for lesbian visibility, especially for older lesbians who are often marginalized.  As an early member of OLOC (Older Lesbians Organizing for Change) San Francisco, Polly also helped create options for older women at the S.F. Women’s Center and co-published Broomstick Magazine for 15 years. Inspired by her lifelong struggle with asthma and COPD, she was active in the disability rights movement. Polly got her first tattoo in her 80’s and in 2013 gave a public story reading with Marge.

Over the years, members of LAGAI would often see Polly with her OLOC comrades at demonstrations around the city.  Polly is survived by Marge Nelson and a caring community of lesbians and other friends and family.