by Seinenu Thein-Lemelson, Ph.D.
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’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.