'Happy Birthday' in a Prison Cell

By WAI MOE Friday, December 18, 2009


“We are not afraid of being arrested again. We know how to live in prison because we have spent 14 to 15 years behind bars. But we are afraid that we cannot work for the people of Burma,” a key player in Burma's pro-democracy movement, Ko Ko Gyi, said in September 2006. 

One year later, he was arrested again. On Friday, the former student leader of the 88 Generation Students group, turned 48 years old in Mong Saik Prison in Shan State, where he is serving a 65-year sentence as a political prisoner.

Ko Ko Gyi (left) and Min Ko Naing at a press conference after their release from Insein Prison in January 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

His family, who was unable to visit him, donated alms to monks to mark his birthday in a traditional Buddhist ceremony. 

“We just donated alms on his behalf,” his brother, Aung Tun, told The Irrawaddy.  “We didn't do a big birthday celebration.”

His family’s last visit to Ko Ko Gyi was in February. Since the junta transferred him from Insein Prison in Rangoon to Mong Saik Prison, 1,000 km from Rangoon, the family has been unable to visit him regularly.

When the student-led 1988 uprising occurred, Ko Ko Gyi was a graduate student in International Relations at the University of Rangoon.

At the time, he was involved in the pro-democracy movement alongside his close friends, Min Ko Naing, another prominent political prisoner who is also serving a 65-year sentence in Kengtung Prison in Shan State; Moe Thee Zun, who is living in exile in the US; and Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma. 

“During the 1988 uprising, Ko Ko Gyi was like a mastermind strategist among follow activists,” Bo Kyi told The Irrawaddy. “Even then he started to talk about national reconciliation as the only way to resolve Burma’s crisis peacefully.”

Ahead of the 1990 election, debates occurred among students and young activists over whether to vote in the election. Ko Ko Gyi urged people to vote and to use the opportunity as a way to promote a democratic transition in the country, Bo Kyi said.

“At the time, some activists disagreed with his idea,” he said. “But it was the right strategy if we review history.”

In 1990, Ko Ko Gyi worked with Buddhist monks during their boycott of alms offered by the military, working with monk leaders in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities.

Hardcore student activists accused him of being a government agent because of his suggestion of dialogue with the ruling junta. Government agents regularly questioned him. In 1989, his close colleagues, including Min Ko Naing, were arrested. Ko Ko Gyi was not detained.

“Sometimes the MI makes up rumors about political figures, such as Ko Ko Gyi, saying 'he is working for the MI,' as a way to spread distrust among pro-democracy activists,” said a former political prisoner in Rangoon, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is a kind of psychological warfare.”

Ko Ko Gyi was finally arrested following the student demonstrations of December 1991, in protests set off at the University of Rangoon after pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize.

From 1991 to 2005, Ko Ko Gyi was held in Insein Prison and Thayet Prison. He shared his political knowledge with other political prisoners, particularly younger ones, according to fellow prisoners, and he respectfully listened to younger political prisoners and different political views.

He was released in March 2005, after spy chief Gen Khin Nyunt was removed and his powerful Military Intelligence organization dismantled in October 2004.
After his release, Ko Ko Gyi and his colleagues Min Ko Naing, Min Zeya, Pyone Cho and Htay Kywe founded the 88 Generation Students group. From 2005 to 2007, the group conducted nonviolent activities including group visits to political prisoners’ homes and held Buddhist ceremonies commemorating political prisoners at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

In 2006, the 88 generation leaders told the National League for Democracy (NLD) that they were prepared to work together with the party to promote democracy. The NLD leadership declined the offer. 

Ko Ko Gyi was detained from September 2006 to January 2007 along with Min Ko Naing, Min Zeya, Pyone Cho and Htay Kywe.

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Moe Aung Wrote:
In 1988 the students begged both ASSK and U Nu to form an interim government in a bid to overthrow the military dictatorship. An eyewitness tells me these young people were in tears trying to get the older leaders to join hands and work together, but alas, all in vain.

If these student leaders have wised up as to middle class indecision and timidity when it comes to seizing power by any means, violent or no, it's heartening to see that they don't seem to have gone soft or mellowed too much as middle age sets in.

We are lucky to have these younger leaders, and I'm sure the next generation will be no less heroic and selfless. We shall overcome as sure as day follows night. UNITE and PREPARE!

Tide Wrote:
A very happy birthday Ko Ko Gyi. I wish you very well, and try to keep yourself healthy. I am sure the Myanmar government will take you out of there soon. You are a very smart and honest guy; and the government is fully aware of that.

Thinking of you, Ko Ko Gyi...

Zwegabinthar Wrote:
Thanks to the author and the Irrawaddy for factual and historical article. Was there any reason why the NLD refused to cooperate with the 88 Generation group? A political party's refusal to accept cooperation offered by some ex-political prisoners is strange and weird. Even without the cooperation with the 88 Generation group, the NLD has no obvious chance to engage in its political activities in Burma.

okkar Wrote:
Anyone who was at ABFSU proclamation at the site of old student union in University campus, knows that Min Ko Naing was the chairman, leader and Moe The Zun was secretary, and second in command. Ko Ko Gyi is not the leader and no one knows who Bo Kyi is or heard of his name back then.

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