Meeting an Inspirational Burmese Dissident

Jim Mcnalis The Irrawaddy

In 2004, I created a sculpture of Min Ko Naing, a well-known leader of the 88 Generation Students movement. At the time, I made sculptures of dissidents and political prisoners in Burma and circulated photos and postcards of the images in order to draw attention to their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Min Ko Naing is an important player in this struggle and I prepared a bust in his honor, which I planned to give to him as a surprise during a visit to Rangoon. However, it was not to be.

Shortly before my planned trip he was rearrested, while I was blacklisted by Burma’s military regime because of some unflattering caricature I made of former junta leader Gen Than Shwe.

Luckily, a friend later managed to sneak my bust into Rangoon and he delivered it to Min Ko Naing’s parents.

Over the years, I created many images of those who I call the Heroes of Burma’s Democracy Movement. I have done so because they are people who inspire me. They are exceptional human beings who possess a ‘nobility of spirit’ and stand for ideas that they believe are more important than their own safety and well being.

Often I try to personally hand over these sculptures, but until Burma’s recent reforms began I did not have a chance to see the 88 Generation leader. This changed last year when he was released from prison as part of a general amnesty. In 2010, I was already taken off the blacklist after Aung San Suu Kyi had invited me to her Rangoon home.

In November 2012, I returned to Burma to deliver my sculpture of Suu Kyi to her and I would also have a chance to finally meet Min Ko Naing. My friend Nay Myo Say, one of Burma’s greatest artists, made the arrangements for a visit to the 88 Generation Students headquarters, where I spotted Min Ko Naing engaged in an energetic telephone conversation.

He glanced over a few times and after hanging up, he quickly walked over to greet me. Often Burmese are reserved and public displays of affection are uncommon, but as I reached out to shake his hand Min Ko Naing wrapped his arms around me and gave me a brotherly hug.

We took a seat at a table in their conference room, where I showed a book with a small portfolio of my caricatures and sculptures. Min Ko Naing is Burma’s most famous political prisoner after Aung San Suu Kyi, but his interests have always resided in the arts.

He paints, writes and composes poetry, and is gifted public speaker, a novelist and musician. As a student, he drew many political caricatures that were critical of the military dictatorship.

As I turned the pages of my portfolio, his deep, spontaneous laughter erupted with every new image. He particularly liked my caricature of President Obama who was on his first visit to Burma at the time.

“Are you in a hurry?” Min Ko Naing asked. “Can you spare a few minutes to meet my family?” Soon we were off to his family home, where the walls were covered with the paintings of his father, U Thet Nyunt, one of Burma’s most famous and prolific artists.

Min Ko Naing pointed to a shelf in the main room where his family had placed my sculpture of him. He put an arm around my shoulder and said, “I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to my mother, father and sisters that you created this sculpture and that it was with them while I was in prison.” For a moment, I was speechless.

He then took us out to the front patio and showed us the paintings he was allowed to create during his last year of prison. Unlike the gloomy artwork that I saw in the former Eastern European countries after the fall of communism, Min Ko Naing’s paintings exploded with bright colors and scenes of his nieces and nephews singing and dancing.

When he was imprisoned following the 1988 demonstrations for democracy he was tortured and mistreated during his many years of incarceration. Only three things helped his survive these terrible times, Min Ko Naing explained: freedom of fear, belief in his cause and maintaining a sense of humor.

Although he must still suffer from his long days in prison, this handsome and youthful-looking 50-year-old seems full of laughter, joy and compassion. Today, after many years of suffering, this remarkable man bears no animosity or anger towards his former jailers.

Instead, he and the other 88 Generation leaders direct all their energy toward serving the interests of the peoples of Burma. My feeling is that they could have no better or more devoted champion than Min Ko Naing.

Jim McNalis is an American artist and former Walt Disney art director who lives in Florida, the US. His views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.