Veteran Democracy Activist Faces Challenges in Bid to Launch New Party

By San Yamin Aung 6 April 2018

YANGON — In the course of founding a political party with the intention of strengthening Myanmar’s multiparty democracy, U Ko Ko Gyi has faced an unexpected challenge: choosing an acceptable name.

Relenting in the face of criticism of his original choice, the Four Eights Party, the veteran pro-democracy activist now says the organization will be registered as the Four Eights People’s Party.

Early last year, U Ko Ko Gyi and his colleagues—who were among the leading members of the student-led 8888 Uprising in August 1988—started laying the groundwork for setting up the Four Eights Party, conducting multi-stakeholder consultations and setting up organizing committee offices in towns around the country.

When the party founders tried to register the organization with the Election Commission in December, they drew criticism from those who see the designation “8888” as a symbol of the struggle for democracy, and as such, as the property of the entire country. These critics say “8888” should not be available for use by a particular party. The organizers were accused of trying to appropriate the imagery and symbols of the historic movement.

The pushback over the name continues, as the party awaits the commission’s approval for registration.

Last week, the commission told the organizers it was concerned about potential disputes that might arise over the name, and asked them to reconsider.

U Ko Ko Gyi said the party’s original name was decided upon only after yearlong consultations with multiple stakeholders. Most of the party’s founding members were actively involved in the nationwide democracy movement, he added.

U Ko Ko Gyi and other leading members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society’s committee to found a political party attend a press conference on Dec. 17. (Photos: Myo Min Soe/ The Irrawaddy)

However, to accommodate the criticisms and suggestions, he said the party would re-register as the Four Eights People’s Party.

“Some suggested adding something before or after 8888 [the original name]. In response to this, we have revised the name,” he said.

He said he hoped the party will soon be registered by the commission, adding that if there are any more objections, the party will address them through legal means.

Other parties had used the iconography of 8-8-88 in their name, he said.

“I won’t respond to disputes over the name anymore. I want to focus on educating the public about the party’s policies and implementing them,” U Ko Ko Gyi added.

The party’s other priorities include getting former activists who are returning from exile involved in the country’s transition, and the rehabilitation of former political prisoners and their families, he said.

If the party’s registration is approved, the new party will serve as an alternative choice for voters.

U Ko Ko Gyi said his aim was to foster the development of political pluralism so that people have many choices.

During the transition from dictatorship to democracy, voters had backed a particular party with the aim of ending the unpopular military regime. Now, U Ko Ko Gyi said, there is a need to move toward the next stage in the country’s democratization process, which involved giving voters the opportunity to refine their preferences.

“Democracy is about enabling people to make choices,” U Ko Ko Gyi said.

After engaging in politics for nearly 30 years, the 56-year-old veteran politician said he aimed to play a more active role.

U Ko Ko Gyi rose to prominence during the student protests in 1988, which grew into a nationwide pro-democracy movement against the former military junta. He spent about 19 years in and out of prison before being released in 2012 under a presidential pardon.

“A political party has an official platform to state its opinions and suggestions. And if people give us a mandate, we can implement our thoughts and goodwill through policies and laws,” he said.

He said there was a mistaken notion among the general public that the sole objective of political parties is to gain power.

Even without winning an election, a political party can monitor and make constructive criticism about the actions of the government, he said.

“Sometimes, the political terminology can sound very grand—‘federalism’, ‘Constitution’, ‘electoral system’—but those are just arguments between politicians. To the general public, politics is the rice pot,” he said.

The new party will work to provide services that improve people’s daily lives, U Ko Ko Gyi said.