Burmese politics these days are increasingly reconciliatory—or at least would appear to be, if you happened to attend a high-profile wedding reception here over the weekend. Renowned Burmese activist Ko Ko Gyi would have never been offered a wedding present from ex-dictator Than Shwe had he married during the days of the former regime, but in a sign of changing times, he received a gift from President Thein Sein after officially marrying his wife a few weeks back.
Under the former regime, Ko Ko Gyi did not even have a chance to search for his soul mate, let alone consider wedding gifts, after he was locked up for nearly 20 years for helping to lead the 1988 pro-democracy movement. Soon after his release in January 2012, he lamented the years wasted behind bars. “I am single,” he told AFP. “I have never married because there was no time to find a suitable partner or to get married. I lost my youth.”
The newly wed Ko Ko Gyi, now in his early 50s, survived bitter experiences in prison, as his beloved parents died one after the other while he was still behind bars. In retrospect, his tragic story was typical for thousands of young students who lost their youth inside the regime’s notorious prisons. From 1988 to 2011, countless politicians and activists suffered through long separations from their lovers and families. The regime’s leaders saw no reason for sympathy. In their eyes, anyone who opposed the government deserved to suffer, physically and emotionally.
Due to his dedication to the democracy movement, his eloquent articulation of ideology and his political shrewdness, Ko Ko Gyi has been praised by both sides of the struggle. Many opposition politicians, high-ranking officials of the current government, ethnic leaders and members of civil society groups attended his wedding reception in Rangoon on Sunday, as did diplomats, scholars and celebrities. Among the guests were opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo and Minister Aung Min from the President’s Office.
Ko Ko Gyi deserves this kind of attention and respect. In fact, people like him who paid such a high price while fighting against the dictatorship deserve more. And it’s no wonder why he happily received such a mixture of guests, including government officials, at the reception. Politically speaking, signs of support from Thein Sein and Aung Min indicate just how far the government has come from its once antagonistic attitude toward pro-democracy activists.
Such shows of support are not new anymore. Over the past three years, the reformist government has frequently reached out to activists as a sort of PR strategy. When the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, led by Ko Ko Gyi as well as activist Min Ko Naing, held an event in 2012 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the pro-democracy movement, senior ministers Soe Thein and Aung Min visited and donated 1 million kyats ($1,000) to the group.
But it remains to be seen whether government leaders have genuinely transformed their mentalities for the good of the country, or if they are simply going through the motions to promote their image. Many Burmese people are no longer fooled or satisfied with a PR strategy. Wedding gifts are nice, but what they want is real change.
To that end, leading members of the pro-democracy movement continue to play important roles in Burmese politics today. After his release in early 2012, Ko Ko Gyi told me that he saw himself and his colleagues as “catalysts” of reform who could help keep the political transition process on the right track.
“We have to admit that the country is going through the motions of reform. But we need to try harder to achieve the essence of reform,” he told me during a roundtable discussion last year. “The 2008 Constitution and the 2010 elections were one sided, controlled by the former military regime. Certainly the current political situation is not what we expected. On those grounds, we are trying to make this process inclusive.”
Ko Ko Gyi said that to truly promote reform, those who took part in the 1988 movement should collaborate and contribute to the rebuilding of the nation from each of their respective fields.
“To attain national reconciliation, we need capable men and women who can narrow the gap between the military and civil society and also reduce ethnic conflicts,” he added.
It is believed that Ko Ko Gyi will contest the 2015 general elections, if not the upcoming by-elections, for a seat in Parliament. Many observers have said that beyond Suu Kyi, who is getting older and lacks a second line of leaders in her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, he and his colleagues are best suited to steer the country’s political landscape.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy while Ko Ko Gyi was still in jail, NLD patron Tin Oo said, “In light of their personal sacrifices and political history, there is every possibility that student leaders like Ko Ko Gyi will become the country’s national leaders.”