This month marks the 25th anniversary of the nationwide protests in 1988 that launched Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. As one of the most prominent leaders of that uprising against military rule, Min Ko Naing was forced to spend most of the next two and a half decades in prison. Released in early 2012 along with many other fellow political prisoners, he has since returned to public life as a founding member of the 88 Generation Peace & Open Society, a group dedicated to restoring democracy and human rights in Myanmar.
Min Ko Naing is a nom de guerre meaning “Conqueror of Kings,” and it has become synonymous with the determination of the people of Myanmar to end unjust and autocratic rule. But these days Min Ko Naing is also actively seeking national reconciliation, even as he continues to push for accountability for human rights abuses committed in the country. However, as he says in this interview with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe, his quest to uncover the truth about the past is not about seeking revenge.
Min Ko Naing has won numerous international awards for his activism. These include the 2009 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights; the 2005 Civil Courage Prize; the 2001 Student Peace Prize; the 2000 Homo Homini Award of People In Need; and the 1999 John Humphrey Freedom Award. His most recent honor was an award from the US National Endowment for Democracy, which he received in 2012.
Question: Twenty-five years after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, what do you think the movement has achieved so far?
Answer: Certainly, they [the authorities] now have to shout louder than we do about democracy. Whether they are really practicing it or not is another matter. The situation today is that they now have to admit that the banner of democracy that we raised is righteous and noble. Here, I think we need to examine what kind of political reform is taking place in this country—is it for all of the people, or just for a group of people? The important question is: who is this current change for?
Q: Back in 1988, many democracy activists, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, called the pro-democracy movement the country’s second struggle for independence. Is it still the same struggle today?
A: Unlike the past, the other side is no longer denying democracy. But things are not moving smoothly, so we still have to struggle. Sometimes, we have to compete with them and sometimes we have to negotiate with them. After all, it is still a struggle.
Q: It will be very difficult to achieve reconciliation in Myanmar without compromising on the issue of justice. How will the 88 Generation Peace & Open Society seek justice for those who have suffered for their role in the struggle?
A: I think we can bring about both—justice and reconciliation. Of course, it is essential to reveal the truth. We can learn lessons from the past only if we uncover the truth. But this doesn’t mean seeking revenge. So first we have to disclose the truth, and then we have to take responsibility together to ensure that injustices don’t happen again.
These days, we can see many media reports about human rights violations in the past. So far, I haven’t seen any actions taken by the authorities against those publications. I think it’s all part of disclosing the truth, although we still can’t pursue it as a nationwide mission.
Q: Your group has decided to make peace and reconciliation the theme of its commemoration of the 1988 uprising. Why did you choose that topic?
A: Peace and reconciliation are essential if we want to move forward. At the same time, however, we will also organize exhibitions about what happened in the past, to continue to disclose the truth.
Q: Myanmar’s opposition groups always had trouble dealing with the political games of the former regime, and they are still lagging behind the current government in terms of strategy. Why are the opposition groups so weak at formulating and following strategies?
A: I don’t see politics as a game. Eventually, politics [in Myanmar] will become a game in which there are players. But right now we are freedom fighters, not players in a political game. I don’t know the rules of that game. Dhamma [justice] will prevail over Adhamma [injustice] in the end. But it also depends on our might and unity. Unity is not a problem in a dictatorship because it is always a top-down system. But in a democracy, everybody is allowed to be different. That is the nature of democracy.
Q: The people of Myanmar are looking to the 88 Generation for leadership at this critical time. What is the political agenda of the group?
A: I don’t want people to depend on an individual person or group. I think we need collaborative leadership. We are now trying to empower civil society, which is different from forming political parties. I think the civil society groups are getting stronger and stronger. What we are doing today is building a network. You can’t see a single tree standing out in a field. Our work is horizontal, not vertical.
Q: Will you form a political party to contest the 2015 national election?
A: Personally, I have no plan to form a political party. But in our group, there are some who are keen to do so and capable of making it work, so they might form a party at some point. I understand why they want to do it, but as for me, I don’t have any enthusiasm or aptitude for it.
Let me say a few words about party politics and people’s politics. Those two ideologies always divide us into two groups. Look at Bogyoke Aung San: He formed a party, but he wasn’t really doing party politics. Instead, he engaged in people’s politics for the good of the whole nation.
I won’t form a political party, but I will keep working at the grassroots level. Look at people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t criticize them for not taking part in party politics. Their work was hugely influential. So I don’t think that that forming a political party and running in an election is the only way to achieve things in politics.
Q: How do you propose to change the current political situation in Myanmar, in which former military leaders still dominate in both the government and the Parliament?
A: It would be best if power was in hands of the people. To reach our goal, I am more interested in influence than power. After 50 years of being ruled with an iron fist, our people tend to think of power as something used to oppress them. It was power that intimidated and enslaved them. The way governments took or seized power wasn’t right, either. That’s why I want to apply influence rather than power. By building influence, we will be able to put power into hands of the people.
Q: What is the difference between the struggle you started in 1988 and the challenges you face today?
A: In the past, our struggle faced total denial and a closed door. So we had to put all our energy into opening that door. Now the door is open and we’ve received promises [from the authorities] that they will walk together with us on this road [to political reform]. We have to admit that we now enjoy more freedom. The media, for example, is much freer than before. We couldn’t even dream of such freedom in the past. These are changes we can’t deny, but that doesn’t mean that those changes are complete.
What I am concerned about now is whether these initial changes will be able to continue to grow. We now have basic rights to form and run associations, organize activities, and so on. But if these rights can’t grow and develop, they will be like bonsai trees in a living room—just for show.
There are traps and obstacles that we have to overcome. There are still restrictive laws in force, such as the draconian Electronics Act, under which we were given 60-year prison sentences for sending out four emails—that’s 15 years for each email. Those laws are still instruments that they can use to throw you into jail anytime they choose.
Q: You said earlier that you are not satisfied with the current political reforms. What kind of political transition would satisfy you?
A: Let’s talk about what should be done in this situation. One of the most critical issues in our country is the ethnic problem. Unless that issue is tackled seriously and immediately, any political reform will be a sham, and we won’t be able to build up a new nation. If we really want to continue this political reform, we need to solve the ethnic issue right away.
This interview first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.