The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Where Are They Now?

Correspondent Anne Fletcher meets former activists of the 88 Generation who made new lives o­n the other side of the world

The menacing group of five soldiers emerged from Rangoon’s city hall, knelt down and aimed their guns at the protesters. Tin Maung Htoo, a 16-year-old high school student, sat tight, linking arms with others in the front row.

The first shots Tin Maung Htoo heard, however, sounded like machine gun fire from armored cars sweeping round both sides of the Sule Pagoda o­n that August night, 19 years ago.

Then the soldiers facing Tin Maung Htoo and his companions opened fire, the bullets from their guns hitting the ground, ricocheting up and striking home. “Some students started running and then falling o­n o­ne another,” Tin Maung Htoo recalls. “I also ran and ran and ran.”

Among the protesters who had massed in Rangoon streets the whole day was 21-year-old Toe Kyi. By 10:30 p.m. that night, sensing a terrible climax to come, the leader of his 100-strong group asked him to take half the young demonstrators back to safety in Sanchaung Township.

One protester, Ko Naing, was doubly wary of the danger. Jailed for seven days after taking part in a march near Inya Lake o­n March 16—also violently broken up by government forces—he left the City Hall area about 5 p.m. to escort a group of teenagers home to Hlaing Township.

Both Toe Kyi and Ko Naing, then 24, were in the crowd o­n Prome Road the following month, o­n September 19, when again the military fired o­n protesters. Those demonstrations were followed by the coup that brought the present regime to power.

Today, after claiming UN refugee status in Thailand, all three men have built new lives in Canada, a country free but very foreign to those who grew up in the tropical time warp of pre-1988 Burma.

From 1989 to 2005, Canada took in 1,085 government and privately sponsored Burmese refugees.  Last year, some 2,000 Karens, accepted from the Mae La Oon and Mae Ra Ma Luang camps, began arriving.

Toe Kyi, his wife, Nyunt Nyunt Than, and their 2-year-old child arrived in Canada in 1997 and were at first resettled in Cranbrook, a town of 18,500 people, deep in the mountains of British Columbia.

It was November, when winter holds Canada in an icy grip. The snow lay deep, the temperature was colder than anything they had ever experienced before, and the winter sun was rising late and setting early, making for long, dark nights. They spoke no English, and there was o­nly o­ne other Burmese family in Cranbrook.

“I felt very, very terrible,” Nyunt Nyunt Than recalls. “I was fighting with my husband every day.”

Ko Naing had an easier time of it when he arrived in Canada in 1998. It was August, and he was resettled in the cosmopolitan city of Vancouver. After three months of language training, he found his first job, in a plant nursery, before moving o­n to become an apprentice carpenter.

Tin Maung Htoo ended up in o­ntario, eastern Canada, in 1996 after a Canadian embassy official arranged his exit straight to the airport from the Bangkok detention centre where the political firebrand had spent three years. “I was stubborn. I was young. I was o­nly thinking about how to bring democracy to Burma,” he says today.

That stubbornness helped him meet the challenge of studying for a political science and economics degree from the University of Western o­ntario, where he graduated in 2003. Now he’s executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma, working energetically for the restoration of democracy and good governance in his homeland.

Toe Kyi and Ko Naing, however, find their political ardor has been dimmed somewhat by the factionalism that plagues Burmese exile groups and by the day-to-day demands of family life.

Toe Kyi and Nyunt Nyunt Than left Cranbrook after o­ne year for Saskatoon, a city of 200,000, in the middle of the Canadian prairie. “We were very lonely,” Toe Kyi says. Although even colder than Cranbrook, Saskatoon had a sizable Burmese community, now numbering about 100.

Toe Kyi started work with a car repair company. Nyunt Nyunt Than gave birth to their second son and continued her struggle to learn English, becoming so frustrated she says she would sometimes slam her books shut in anger, vowing never to open them again.

She also found herself disconcerted by Canadian family life. “I was very uncomfortable with the children,” she says. “No o­ne controls them.”

She was also distressed to see elderly people living alone, their children having long since left home. She found work looking after elderly people. “I don’t have parents so I like to help them,” she says.

Neighborhood life, too, was very strange to a Burmese couple used to Asian conviviality. Ko Naing waves his hand in the direction of the street in front of his apartment building. In Burma, he says, he would know the goings-on of everyone. “Here, the people next door don’t know what happens and they don’t care.”

He and his wife, Marlar, whom he met at Thingyan celebrations in 1999, have woven tight bonds with several other Burmese families, attempting to recreate the warmth of Burmese life for her son, 11, and their 19-month-old daughter.

He was fortunate to find a wife in Canada, where Burmese men substantially outnumber Burmese women. Others have gone back to Thailand and even to Burma itself to find what the community dubs “parcel brides.”

Canada is hard o­n youthful marriages forged in the jungle or in the refugee camp. Without elders to keep a couple in check and without the understanding that democracy has its own rules, a quarrel can get out of hand, the police are called, a husband ends up in jail and divorce is the next step.

And, although at least o­ne city, Vancouver, has a monastery with a resident monk to teach their children, parents watch their offspring little by little grow away from Burmese ways into Canadian o­nes.

On the plus side, Canada’s comprehensive health care and education systems are praised by everyone. Toe Kyi still marvels at the freedom his family had simply to move from Saskatoon to Vancouver last year, with no questions asked.

With enough money in his pocket, says Ko Naing, he can buy anything he wants.

And open prejudice is rare.  “People are very kind and tolerant,” says Tin Maung Htoo.

“I’m happy now,” say Nyunt Nyunt Than, firmly.

But a strong undercurrent of sadness runs through the 1988 generation for what they’ve lost and what they couldn’t change. “I’m very sorry for our people in Burma,” says Toe Kyi.

Ann Fletcher is a Canadian journalist based in Vancouver

Khin Ohmar: A Woman of Courage

By Yeni

Nineteen years after leaving her country, Khin Ohmar concedes that her dream of a “new Burma” is still a long way off.

“We haven’t reached our goal,” the prominent 1988 student activist told The Irrawaddy.

Khin Ohmar, 39, interrupted her studies at Rangoon University to join the pro-democracy movement. Following the military coup in 1988, she left Rangoon and joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front operating along the Thai-Burmese border. She was just 20.

The idealistic and passionate student soldiers never marched o­n Rangoon. They were matched against a well-funded and savagely cruel state army, as well as the ravages of malaria and dengue fever that typified life in the jungle.

The ABSDF also faced factionalism and leadership failures that ultimately compelled Khin Ohmar and several of her colleagues to leave the revolutionary army.

“At that time, we had no experience in politics at all,” she said. Khin Ohmar subsequently sought political asylum in the US, though she had little desire to relocate there.

She studied chemistry at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, but later returned to the Thai-Burmese border to work o­n women’s issues among Burmese exile communities.

“Without the meaningful participation of women in all sectors of society, especially in decision-making, we can not say there is democracy,” she said.

Khin Ohmar is now a leading activist in the Burmese Women’s Union, the Women’s League of Burma and the Network for Democracy and Development, based in exile.

She has struggled against the country’s ruling junta since it seized power nearly two decades ago, and she knows that a long journey to political reform still lies ahead. But Khin Ohmar remains optimistic.

“The movement is not dead,” she said. “We, the Burmese democracy activists inside the country and abroad, have been working hard to bring international attention to our country’s struggle for democracy and human rights. The most important goal is to achieve mutual understanding between democratic forces and ethnic nationalities.”

Ko Ko Gyi: The Strategist

By Yeni

Second o­nly to the activist-poet Min Ko Naing, the “Conqueror of Kings,” within the ranks of Burma’s former student activists, Ko Ko Gyi has earned the reputation of a practical and gifted strategist.

He served as a prominent activist leader in Rangoon during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the vice chairman of the banned All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

Ko Ko Gyi laments that, in addition to poor strategy, the pro-democracy forces were not fully prepared for the next step in 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people nationwide took to the streets to demand their freedom.

“We were not ready to fill the vacuum of power (in 1988). That’s why the army filled it up. According to the nature of power, there is no compromise with the void,” said the former student activist, who spent nearly 14 years in Burma’s infamous Insein Prison.

Ko Ko Gyi clearly understood the harsh reality of Burmese politics when he went underground following the subsequent military coup in September 1988. In 1991, no longer able to evade military intelligence, he was arrested.

Along with fellow activists Min Ko Naing and Min Zeya, Ko Ko Gyi was released from prison in 2004 but, like his colleagues, he was not ready to give up the fight. He helped found the 88 Generation Students, a movement that strives to give ordinary Burmese a political voice in the military-run country.

“Society is forced to adopt an apolitical mindset,” said Ko Ko Gyi, noting that oppression by the military government and weak leadership within the opposition movement has made many in Burma give up political activism and even their hope of future change.

The “strategist” has a message for those who believe that international organizations looking for ways to penetrate Burma might strengthen civil society: “Burma is a military-dominated country. Every association—business or social or whatever—operates under the junta’s supervision. No NGOs can independently survive or operate [in Burma]. So if they are here, they are strengthening military society.”

Nonetheless, Ko Ko Gyi remains hopeful. He believes that achieving a democratic Burma is still possible through political reforms and national reconciliation.

“But we need a strategy, a unified policy for the opposition and a mechanism to run this policy efficiently,” he says.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |