In Person

88 Generation Student Leader Still Working for Democracy

By Htun Htun 4 December 2017

Ko Mya Aye, a prominent leader of the 88 Generation students—a term used to refer to the young leaders who took a prominent role in Myanmar’s pro-democracy uprising in 1988—has resigned from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a civil society organization formed by these student leaders.

The Muslim pro-democracy activist recently sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Htun Htun and talked about continuing his political commitments following his resignation.

What made you resign from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society?

It is not because of disagreements. In certain cases, I wanted to talk more openly. As some members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society are establishing a political party, I thought I might have some difficulty in performing my duty, so I stepped down. This is not a departure from politics or due to bitter disagreements.

What are your priorities? Were there any restrictions on you in the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society?

I view the Rakhine problem as a very critical issue that directly concerns the sovereignty of the country. People are talking about harmonizing the two societies [Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists]. We can’t allow R2P [responsibility to protect]. We need to work together with the government to get rid of [religious and racial] extremism from society, which may cause some friction.

As for the peace process, we should think about how to start negotiations with the Northern Alliance [armed ethnic groups based in northern Myanmar] rather than ignoring it. Meanwhile, there have been setbacks in peace negotiations with the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council].

We need to express our views and take action to break this stalemate. It is time we question whether 21st Century Panglong is enough [to create peace] and if Myanmar’s peace process is really making progress.

How will you engage in ethnic issues after resigning from your organization?

I have reached an agreement with some people to work with them. It is important to have a straightforward approach toward ethnicities. To put it frankly, you can engage in ethnic issues if you are willing to think about how to bring about self-determination, fundamental rights and a federal Union for them. A lot of 88-Generation members, including those abroad, are willing to do so.

Will you join a political party?

No, I won’t. There are many other 88 Generation students. Politics by its nature is not a single man’s work. It is about cooperation and collaboration. It is not one man’s show and it is difficult to handle alone. I’ve talked with like-minded people about building a federal Union. I will continue engaging in the country’s peace process and I’d like to create harmony in a divided society.

I’ve got a lot of like-minded people to serve human rights, farmers’ rights and labor rights. Perhaps we may become an entity. I’d like to engage in politics based on principle, but not a political party.

What is your view on the political party of your former comrade U Ko Ko Gyi?

Political parties are about taking and managing the State’s power. Everybody says a federal Union will be built. In fact, principle is important in building a federal Union. Though everybody is saying federalism, we will get nowhere if there are faults with the operation, even if we have a policy.

In my opinion, political parties should have coherent policies rather than the general policy of building democracy and a federal Union. I totally agree with Ko Ko Gyi’s party in principle though I chose not to join it. This is democracy and they have a right to do so. And the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society is cooperating in some areas.

You have come under more political attacks than other 88 Generation members because of your religion. Does that cause difficulties?

There are no difficulties, but there are pressures. There were pressures even when I was in the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. There are attacks against me on the grounds of religion, but not on my activities. What can I do? I belong to a different religion. I am and will be subject to discriminatory attacks on the grounds of religion. But the warmth of some people can make up for all those attacks.

Political analysts suggest that the Rakhine issue has pushed Myanmar closer to China. What is your view?

That is true, especially because of our geopolitics. Our location necessitates maintaining ties with China. Previously, Myanmar’s government wanted to rebalance its ties with China and western countries. Unfortunately, that has failed. It is bad for our country. I am worried that we will have to rely completely on one country.

Do you think Myanmar’s closer ties with China will pave the way for the Northern Alliance to make peace with the Myanmar government?

Not necessarily. Perhaps, it may contribute to some extent. There is a need to find out the reasons that make them distance themselves from each other. Your question suggests that the Northern Alliance is under the thumb of China. We should not view it like that. Let’s take the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] as an example. We need to understand its standpoints and feelings. It’d be better not to make suggestions if we are not sure about the connections between them and China.

What are your suggestions to solve the Rakhine issue?

R2P will bring more disadvantages than advantages. So, you would ask me if we should raise a serious objection then. We can’t. The more we deny, the more we lose. We have to think delicately about how to handle international pressures and the current situation. [Former national security adviser] Minister U Thaung Tun has said we are in a red stage. Our country is at a critical point. While civil society and non-governmental organizations should think about how to create harmony between the two societies, the government should strictly enforce rule of law.

The government knows the causes of the problems. There are people who have served in the government since the time of the military government. The government should verify according to the 1982 Citizenship Law and immigration records, and grant [full] citizenship and naturalized citizenship accordingly. And it should implement this process in cooperation with western countries which are calling for R2P. If the government is acting honestly and justly, R2P will not be applied and international pressures will also reduce. I would like to urge those concerned to avoid provocative remarks.

What do you think of the NLD government’s handling of the Rakhine issue?

I think the NLD government knows certain things about the Rakhine issue, but it seems to be quite difficult for it to handle. The 2008 Constitution is the major challenge. The country will pick up and we’ll be able to see good results in 2020 if we can overcome this challenge.

The Rakhine issue has marred Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s image on the international stage and she also has had some honors removed. Do you think it is related to her handling of the issue?

Everyone should be aware that our country will fall if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi falls. Once she falls, our country will not recover. We need to understand that she can’t fail. Perhaps her image has been marred because of some misunderstanding under some circumstances. But I don’t think her reputation will continue to suffer if she walks on rightly.

What is your political aspiration for the future?

As a citizen, I will continue to serve the interests of the country and people. My goal is to establish a democratic country conceptualized by the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. I will continue my efforts until such a country is built. I individually will not join parliamentary politics.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.