The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

The Last Night in the Cell
By KYAW ZWA MOE Saturday, January 21, 2012

It was Jan. 12, the night before they were freed.

Pyone Cho, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group detained in the remote Kawthaung Prison in southern Burma's Tenasserim Division, was immersed in a weekly journal when a prison guard he hadn't noticed standing in front of his cell asked him what he was reading.

Then the guard, speaking to him through the iron bars of Cell No. 6, told him the news: “You will be freed tomorrow.”

Pyone Cho wasn’t convinced. Coincidentally, the 46-year-old former student leader was reading about the “clemency” ordered by President Thein Sein on Jan. 3, just nine days earlier, which saw the release of around 30 political prisoners among more than 6,000 criminal convicts.

Pyone Cho, center, a leading activist of the 88 Generation Students Group, waves at his colleagues welcoming his arrival at Yangon airport after released from Kawthaung Prison in Tenasserim Division on Jan. 13. 2012. (PHOTO: Associated Press)
Under the clemency, his original 65-year sentence was reduced to around 30 years. It seemed unlikely that another amnesty would be ordered again so soon.

But when the guard added that the prison had already booked his flight back to Rangoon, he started to doubt his assumption. Before he could say anything in reply, however, the guard disappeared without another word.

Suddenly alone with his thoughts, he began to wonder if the new amnesty, if it was for real, would apply to other members of the 88 Generation Students group. Almost all of them were serving sentences similar to his own for their role in protests against a dramatic rise in fuel prices in July 2007 that months later sparked the Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution, Burma's biggest mass uprising in decades.

As a veteran of Burma's pro-democracy movement, his first thought was how he and his colleagues could continue the struggle they began in 1988, when nationwide demonstrations toppled a military-backed socialist regime, only to be crushed by a new and even more brutal junta. He had already spent 15 years behind bars for his leading role in those protests; combined with the years he had served since his second jail term began in 2007, he had spent nearly half his life in prison for his political activities.

Still finding it difficult to believe that he would be released again so soon, but with his mind already racing ahead with ideas about how he and his fellow activists could accelerate the reforms begun by Thein Sein so that Burma could finally catch up with the rest of the region, he found it impossible to sleep. One issue that loomed large in his mind that night was Burma's ethnic conflicts, which he saw as the most important problem facing the country.

Over the past four years, Pyone Cho had spent much of his time reading. He read Nelson Mandela's “Long Walk to Freedom,” biographies of US President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and novels. But the reading material he dedicated most of his time to was Burma's 2008 Constitution, drafted by a committee dominated by delegates handpicked by the former junta.

Another pastime was painting, an activity normally prohibited in Burma's prisons, but which he had somehow managed to convince the prison authorities to allow him to do. In four years, he finished around 20 paintings—mostly imagined landscapes, but also a few depicting the prison and his cell.

His mind still very active after so many years in prison, Pyone Cho spent his final night in prison thinking about the future. At the same time, he thought of his brother, Thet Win Aung, who he knew would never see freedom again. Also a political activist, Thet Win Aung died in 2006 while serving a lengthy sentence.

With such thoughts crowding into his mind, he resigned himself to a sleepless night and the uncertainty of the day that lie ahead.


That same night, but hundreds of miles away in another remote corner of Burma, Ant Bwe Kyaw sat in his cell in Katha Prison in Sagaing Division. Political colleagues since 1988, he and Pyone Cho were arrested together in 2007. Both men were 46 years old, and both had spent much of their lives behind bars.

Ant Bwe Kyaw's cell was one of just three in his cell block. His neighbors were a former lieutenant-colonel in Burma's infamous military intelligence service and an IT guy imprisoned for helping an activist group. Nearby was a ward for female prisoners, including Hla Hla Win, a young reporter who was serving a lengthy sentence for sending information to the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Ant Bwe Kyaw, a leading activist of the 88 Generation Students group
Shortly before 8 pm on Jan. 12, Ant Bwe Kyaw heard the sound of hands clapping from the women's ward. Moments later, he heard Hla Hla Win shouting out his name. Although he could barely see her face from his cell, he could easily imagine the excitement it expressed. “I think this is our time,” she shouted. “They just announced on TV that 651 prisoners are going to be released tomorrow.”

Unlike the female prisoners, who were allowed to watch TV for a short time in the evenings, Ant Bwe Kyaw had to wait until 8 o'clock to hear the announcement with his own ears. At that time every evening, the prison played the national news over the radio for all inmates to hear. The announcement said that the 651 prisoners would be released “for national reconciliation.” This phrase made him feel almost certain that he and other political prisoners would be released the next day. His first thought was that it would be very good to reunite with his 88 Generation colleagues.

Normally at this time of night, he would spend some time reading before meditating for about half an hour and then going to bed. But on this night, he was too excited to read as usual, so he made himself a strong cup of instant coffee and started thinking about the books he would take with him when he was released.

He decided that he would donate most of his Burmese books to the prison library and fellow prisoners but keep a few books on philosophy and some novels in English, including “Norwegian Wood” and “Kafka on the Shore” by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose books he enjoyed for their unusual descriptions.

Another favorite book was “Dreams from My Father,” by US President Barack Obama, which contained a sentence that he found so striking that he wrote it down in his notebook: “What I do know is that history returned that day with a vengeance; that, in fact, as Faulkner reminds us, the past is never dead and buried—it isn’t even past.”

After a long, cold and almost sleepless night, Ant Bwe Kyaw heard a guard approach his cell at around 4 am. Getting as close to the cell door as possible and speaking in a whisper, the guard said: “The list has just arrived. You're on it. But your neighbors are not.”

Even then, Ant Bwe Kyaw could hardly believe that he was about to be freed. Sensing his doubt, the guard just asked if he could have his blanket when he left.

Like Pyone Cho, Ant Bwe Kyaw spent his remaining hours behind bars thinking about how he and his colleagues could resume their political activities. He felt that Thein Sein’s reforms were just a start, a dirt track on the way to democracy that needed to be turned into a highway. It would be up to him and his colleagues to accelerate the process of constructing Burma’s road to freedom.

But even as his own freedom seemed more certain and his dreams of change began to dawn as a real possibility, he could not help but think of those he would soon be leaving behind. He hoped that they and all of Burma’s political prisoners, scattered in prisons around the country, would also soon be able to rejoin the struggle for their country’s freedom.


Ko Ko Gyi, the second most prominent 88 Generation leader after Min Ko Naing, had no idea on the evening of Jan. 12 that his release from Mong Hset Prison in Shan State was imminent. The 50-year-old former student leader believed that the government was facing an internal power struggle and would never allow him and his colleagues to join forces again at such a sensitive time.

He also knew that Burma’s rulers were always very careful to keep the 88 Generation group away from Aung San Suu Kyi. When they were released before, she was under house arrest; and whenever she was freed, they were behind bars. If they and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had a chance to work together, they could prove to be a formidable political force. While the NLD dominated Burma’s party politics, the 88 Generation leaders had achieved spectacular results in organizing popular protests that presented a more direct challenge to the military’s political supremacy.

Like Pyone Cho and Ant Bwe Kyaw, Ko Ko Gyi had spent about 15 years in prison after the 1988 uprising, before being sentenced to another 65 years after the Saffron Revolution. Also like them, he was tireless in his efforts to find solutions to Burma’s political problems, which had left the country divided and impoverished.

Ko Ko Gyi, center right, a leading activist of the 88 Generation Students Group, waves his hand to his colleagues as he arrives at Rangoon airport after released from Mong Hset Prison, Shan State, on Jan. 13, 2012. (PHOTO: Associated Press
Another thing all three had in common was their keen interest in reading. Ko Ko Gyi had also read Obama’s books, “The Audacity of Hope” and “Dreams of My Father,” and felt they contained valuable lessons. “Obama is practical,” said Ko Ko Gyi, whose respect for pragmatism had deepened after years of pursuing political ideals.

He said that when he was younger, he was impressed by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries, who started out with just 12 rifles. Now, however, he felt that Burma needed more than just young idealists ready to give their lives to the struggle. “If only revolutionaries govern a country, the country will be in trouble.”

That’s why he said he welcomed Suu Kyi’s decision to work together with the government formed last year, even if its democratic credentials left a great deal to be desired. Sometimes, he said, it is easier to risk being thrown in jail than to make risky political decisions that not everybody supports.

Ko Ko Gyi had no illusions about what “power sharing” with the current government would mean. Instead of a 50-50 arrangement, the military would insist on retaining 70 or 80 percent of its former monopoly on power. But at this stage, it didn’t matter so much who was the biggest winner in this “win-win” deal: The important thing was to recognize that there were more than just two players, and that all stakeholders should benefit from any agreements reached.

So what role did he see for himself and other activists? Essentially, he said, they were “catalysts,” agents of reform who could bring credibility to the political transition process and help keep it on the right track.

But they alone would not be able to get the country get back on its feet. “During the transition period, we need Burmese technocrats, including those who were educated in foreign countries. They need skills, goodwill and passion to contribute to the country. They don't need any experience like us in jail.”

Did he really believe that the country was finally beginning a genuine process of reform? Or did he fear, like so many others, that the current situation could easily reverse itself, undoing the progress of the past year?

“We can never be certain what tomorrow will bring,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “All we can do is work together to make tomorrow a better day than today.”


The following day, all three men were freed along other members of the 88 Generation Students group being held in prisons around the country. Crowds of their supporters gathered to hear what they had to say as they made their way back to Rangoon. Min Ko Naing, who was released from Thayet Prison in Magway Division, delivered speeches that were received with rousing cheers. They were given garlands of flowers like returning war heroes, but in their own minds they were returning to the battlefield—the subtle, treacherous and exhilarating battlefield of a new era in Burmese politics.

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