What is the value of life?
Life had no value at all in the eyes of the soldiers whose machine gun bullets I blindly fled as the military gunned down student pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Yangon in 1988. The crackdown in Yangon and other cities left about 3,000 demonstrators dead.
Life was miserable when I was taken away from my mother and thrown into a cold, bloodstained cell in a notorious interrogation center run by Military Intelligence under the previous military regime in 1991.
Life was hell for the 10 days I was mentally and physically tortured by officers of Military Intelligence Units 6 and 7.
Life was unjust in early 1992 when the junta’s military tribunal sentenced me to 10 years in prison for my nonviolent political activities—including participating in peaceful demonstrations and publishing a pro-democracy journal—against the military regime.
Life was hopeless when in 1994 I received the saddest news of my life—that my mother had passed away—while I was serving my lengthy imprisonment inside a cell in Insein Prison.
Life was meaningless for the eight years I spent in that cell—my entire young adult life, a time when one should be strolling the grounds of a university campus, pursuing a higher education.
In fact, life is unjust. And it will never be just. That’s what I know, as everybody knows.
That was just part of my life before I was released from prison in 1999. I was not alone. Many thousands of fighters for freedom and democracy were thrown behind bars, while many more were forced to flee to rebel strongholds along the border due to the then-military regime’s persecution.
The critical question is how every one of us individually coped with those “lives”, lives that can only be described using merciless adjectives, under the iron fist of military rule over the past many decades. After my release—it still happens today—I repeatedly encountered one question: How did I cope with those difficulties in prison and beyond?
It’s a question asked out of mere curiosity, but it’s not one I find easy to answer.
Survival wasn’t the result of one virtue. Mettle is comprised of many abstract “ingredients”, such as conviction, determination—some might say stubbornness—resilience, positive thinking or optimism, bravery, a love of the truth, passionate belief, a spirit of pluralism, and pragmatism (that is, the ability not to indulge in delusion).
Among them, I would say, it was optimism that did most to save me from despair when I was in prison. But other qualities helped me transform from a “victim” of the junta into a keen student behind bars (despite the fact that reading was not allowed, let alone studying). With those mental ingredients, I successfully turned my cell into a “classroom” and a “library”. And I turned the dark news of my mother’s death into a source of energy to make myself into an even more disciplined student, learning continuously. I told myself that human suffering shouldn’t be allowed to plunge me into psychological disability or philosophical despair.
The various ways of perceiving life I have listed above are all very different, though I was the one experiencing each of those hardships.
To acquire these abstract ingredients for survival, one basically needs to devote himself to something large and important like a cause for his nation or society. I believe all those who oppose oppressive regimes knowing that they will likely end up in jail or even dead have such an aim; adhering to their nation beyond their personal interest or goals.
Why am I writing this all down now?
This is an age of pessimism. Delusion is pervasive. Our world seems eclipsed by the rise of illiberal leadership in the US and some European countries, an unworkable Brexit, a global downturn in economic growth, a widespread identity crisis and the global problem of climate change. Every day, depressing news reaches us from somewhere around the world.
And Myanmar? Myanmar has its share of curses. In fact, during the five decades of rule by the military, and its mismanagement of all sectors of the country, “Burma is cursed” was a common observation.
Today, the country is darkened by clouds both old and new: the undemocratic, military-drafted Constitution and the military’s continued important role in the political arena; the unfinished 70-year-old ethnic conflict; the rise of ultranationalist groups; new but incapable ministers and high-ranking officials; and seemingly intractable problems like slowing economic growth, a conservative mindset and old-fashioned bureaucratic attitudes.
However, nothing is in vain. The sacrifices we made and our dedication to the struggle to restore democracy succeeded significantly in paving the way for the country’s first civilian government in five decades. But as it is still operating under the undemocratic Constitution drafted by the former military regime, I see our struggle toward democracy as being at the halfway point.
Thus, it’s worth it now for me to reassess what life means for us.
In a recent story I argued that our democratic transition will likely take another three decades to complete. To endure that, we will need the full package of “ingredients” I mentioned above.
With those qualities, I believe Myanmar will finally be able to achieve the goals that, throughout its history, have been out of reach due to the rise of imperialism in the 19th century, when the country was colonized by Britain; the spread of fascism in the early 20th century culminating in the invasion of the country by Japan; and the military coups of 1962 and 1988.
Life is miserable if you think it’s miserable. Or, life can be beautiful if you perceive that it’s beautiful. Perception may be different from reality; but it can be the best way to overcome a difficult reality.
So, life is beautiful. Yes—but only when you have the abilities needed to perceive it.