Burmese Days

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Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Aung San Suu Kyi at the Thanlyin township election office on the outskirts of Rangoon, after winning a seat in Burma’s parliament, May 9, 2012

1.

In January, Min Ko Naing, one of Burma’s leading dissidents, walked out of prison. When the government ordered his release, he was over three years into a sixty-five-year jail term he had received for political activities in support of the “Saffron Revolution,” a nationwide uprising launched against the ruling military junta by Buddhist monks in 2007.

That was not the first time in his life that Min Ko Naing had run afoul of the authorities. He began his career as an activist during another protest movement in 1988 that was brutally suppressed by the reigning generals, who ordered troops to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing thousands. Thousands of the survivors disappeared into jails or labor camps, where they endured conditions of unstinting brutality, sometimes for decades. Min Ko Naing survived the crackdown, but as one of the best-known student activists he was squarely in the sights of the government and soon ended up under arrest. Altogether he has spent twenty-one of the past twenty-three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

When I met him a few weeks ago in Rangoon, I was hard-pressed to notice any lingering trauma. A fresh-faced forty-nine-year-old, he greeted me with a firm handshake and a broad smile, then introduced me to his colleague Ko Ko Gyi, a co-leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, a political movement that strives to keep alive the ideals of their youthful revolt. Both men were wearing identical dark longyi, the skirt-like garment that many in Burma (the official name of the country is Myanmar) prefer to trousers, and dazzling white shirts, perhaps an allusion to one of their political campaigns, in which supporters were urged to wear the color white to signal their demand for greater democracy. We sat down in a room in the freshly refurbished building that serves as the headquarters of their movement; the only furniture was a few plastic lawn chairs and an electric fan—no luxury in Burma’s spring dry season, when temperatures regularly hover above a hundred degrees.

I had come to ask these men what they thought of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who only recently emerged from her own latest spell of detention after many dogged years of struggle against the regime, and who is now leading Burma’s pro-democracy movement into a fraught new chapter of anxiety and hope. Last year, after nearly fifty years of military rule, President Thein Sein, himself an ex-general elected to office under constitutional ground rules designed by the old junta, launched a cautious political liberalization. He started ceasefire talks with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups, many of them at war with the central…


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