A Very Special Kind of Courage
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A Very Special Kind of Courage

By Jim Andrews Tuesday, September 4, 2007


It must take a very special kind of courage for people to give up all they hold dear—family, livelihood, convivial evenings with friends—for a democratic cause that they know in advance offers no short road to freedom but only a return to prison.

‘The courage of Jimmy, his wife and their friends is exemplary,’ says The Irrawaddy’s Jim Andrews, seen here at a Rangoon meeting with the 88 Generation Students group activist.

Kyaw Min Yu and his wife Nilar Thein have a comfortable home, where they regularly entertain friends. Many, like them, are members of the 88 Generation Students group, and the talk usually centers on political issues and the struggle for democracy and a better life for all in Burma.

The young couple have a common experience of the grim reality of present-day Burma—Kyaw Min Yu spent 15 years in prison for his involvement in the 1988 popular uprising, Nilar Thein was locked up for 10 years after participating in demonstrations in 1996.

The young couple have something else of importance in common—a four-month old daughter Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu, and both regard their pro-democracy work as an investment in her future. “We want her to grow up in a just, democratic society, free from fear and conflict,” Nilar Thein has said.

Kyaw Min Yu often slipped out for a beer with friends and political comrades at a Rangoon bar where members of the 88 Generation Students group meet at shadowy corner tables and discuss their peaceful campaign to bring democracy to Burma. The bar, one of Rangoon’s most popular haunts, is an unlikely venue for their political debate. A live band shares the nightly program with screenings of international football matches.

Kyaw Min Yu is known there as Jimmy, and that’s how he was introduced to me. It was something of a private joke. “Hi, Jim,” I would say. “Hi, Jimmy,” he’d reply.

In happier times—Kyaw Min Yu, his wife Nilar Thein and their baby daughter
Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu
In the night of August 21, the joking ended. Jimmy was arrested, along with at least a dozen other opposition activists who had demonstrated that day against the sharp increases in the price of fuel announced with no warning by a capricious regime out of touch with its own people. In a typical display of gratuitous callousness, the regime has kept their whereabouts unknown, although it’s reported that they are being held in several separate locations, including the notorious Insein prison.

So it appears that the detained activists don’t even have the company of their comrades to keep their spirits up. That comradeship kept Jimmy going during the 15 years he spent in prison.

He hadn’t been long out of prison when I first met him at his favorite bar. He’d invited some other former student activists along, and they reminisced about their prison experiences like a group of former schoolmates at an annual reunion.

Memories were exchanged of successful attempts to circumvent prison regulations and trick the jailers. one artist in the group had smuggled out his works painted on tee shirts with paint mixed from crushed bricks and grime. Other former prisoners recounted how they had developed a communications code, tapped out on the pipes that ran through their cells.

Tales of prison brutality also laced the conversation at our rebel table, but not a hint of bitterness surfaced as the activists talked of a democratic future where even the rights of the members of the current ruling elite were to be protected. “Reconciliation” was the key word.

“We’ve seen enough of brute force, violence, hatred and senseless retribution,” said one former prisoner. “We are working for a future of peaceful cooperation among all sectors of our society.”

Jimmy’s own immediate future is now determined by the confines of prison walls. His wife is in hiding, hunted by the agents of a vengeful regime. Their little daughter is in the care of his mother-in-law.

Others of that happy, unaccountably optimistic group with whom I had spent such pleasant evenings in a Rangoon bar are also now in prison or in hiding. They had all staged peaceful demonstrations knowing full well what awaited them and fully conscious of the sacrifices they were making.

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