Min Ko Naing and the Saffron Revolution

Mael Raynaud and Thinn Thinn interviewed Min Ko Naing in July in Yangon. Mael Raynaud relates the conversation.

Editor’s Note: This post is a “teaser” for our upcoming forum on the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” On 21 August 2007, Min Ko Naing and many of his colleagues were arrested while protesting, creating a catalyst for demonstrations that spread across the country.

Symbols can be overplayed, but sometimes they are simply too powerful, and too meaningful, to ignore.  As Thinn Thinn and I prepare for an interview with Min Ko Naing, the legendary leader of the 1988 movement for democracy, I remind her of the fact that he was born in 1962, the very year Ne Win took power. The student leader who ultimately led to the dictator’s downfall was born just as his soldiers confronted students opposed to the coup.

So, my next question to Thinn Thinn is obvious: when were you born? March 1989. Well, this is no less of a beautiful symbol. This is the month when Min Ko Naing was arrested, starting a long and painful experience in the prisons of Myanmar. He was only released in November 2004, over 15 years later. Enough time for Thinn Thinn to now be in high school. As she and I are perfectly aware, and as transpires in our shared excitement ahead of this interview, few people, if any, could claim they helped make Myanmar a country where a researcher like Thinn Thinn could participate in the work of such a vibrant civil society. Except that Min Ko Naing, as I long suspected, and as will be confirmed only moments into the interview, is not a man to claim anything for himself. He is as humble and selfless as he is strong and generous in helping others and giving them credit.

The story of the Saffron Revolution really started in March 1988, when Paw Oo Tun, a university student, became Min Ko Naing, “He Who Conquers Kings”. How Min Ko Naing became a student leader, how the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU)— the student union that has written so many important pages of Burmese history since 1936— was revived in 1988, and how Min Ko Naing helped set the stage for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the natural leader of the democratic movement of Myanmar— all of these questions have been well answered, in books such as Bertil Lintner’s “Outrage” or Christina Fink’s “Living Silence”. Certainly, the memory of these events has been kept alive by a myriad of activists, such as Thar Nyunt Oo, Min Ko Naing’s colleague in the ABFSU, who explained it to me in February 2004 when he advocated for the release of political prisoners (Min Ko Naing being the most famous of them). Or others such as Bo Kyi, of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, who helped me, finally, meet “the man behind the legend,” 15 years after he first told me about Min Ko Naing’s story.

If there is one thing about Min Ko Naing that has always fascinated me, it is how he doesn’t seem to mind making space for other leaders (although he had little choice in 2007). Min Ko Naing does not wear saffron (nor do monks in Myanmar, but that’s a different story), and by September 2007, he was in jail. But if this was a revolution, then certainly it was he who started it, just as he did in 1988.

This is where we start the interview. Min Ko Naing reminds us how a hike in fuel prices, on August 15, 2007, gave an opportunity for activists such as himself to organize a protest:

“The demonstrations started because of fuel prices, but the day was not chosen at random: August 19 the government arrested us for doing politics under the pretext of supporting the 1990 elections’ mandate. We were opposed to the national convention. They just needed to find a reason to arrest us.”

The general context, beyond the state of the economy, was indeed not completely irrelevant: on July 18, 2007, the National Convention, which was drafting what became the 2008 Constitution, had entered its final phase. The date of the demonstration, August 19, was not picked by chance: “It was the anniversary of NLD leader U Kyi Maung’s death,” explained Min Ko Naing. U Kyi Maung, who died in 2004, had been elected to parliament in the 1990 elections. Activists had been campaigning ever since for the results of these elections to be honored and were using that argument to discredit the National Convention. As Min Ko Naing explained,  

“It was very difficult to gather people, so we took that opportunity. At the beginning, there was just a few hundred people. No one dared to say or do anything. So even that was a success. The demonstration took place only in Yangon, but we already had a network around the country, committed to help if we were arrested. That’s how the movement started, because people in this network started to ask for the release of political prisoners”.

Whatever political game the activists and the authorities were playing, one fact cannot be denied: one side was demonstrating peacefully for democracy, while the other behaved in textbook Orwellian fashion by arresting 13 of the protesters at midnight, sending them to jail, torturing them, and trying to break them down, physically and mentally.

“We were arrested two days later. First, we were taken to a military police compound. This led to a demonstration for our release. This angered the guards, who took us to Insein,” Min Ko Naing remembered.

He was arrested a second time in September 2006 and released a second time in January 2007. He was then starting his third term in jail. At that point, “37 people had been arrested, in three or four different occasions. Some had lawyers, some didn’t.”

But this doesn’t really seem to have mattered. Min Ko Naing’s account of his relations with the lawyers, the guards, and the judges constantly alternates between the comical and the horrific. All of us have seen movie screen heroes standing up and talking back to their guards. Min Ko Naing did it in real life, and listening to him talk about it makes it impossible not to smile, and even laugh, at the ridicule the representatives of the military state were forced into. The vivid memories of agents dressed in civilian clothes “secretly” taking pictures in the court, hiding their cameras in newspapers, make for one of the best stories I have ever heard. But as this very special form of humor is on display, one can’t help being in awe at the incredible courage, and shocked by the violence that came as a response. Nothing sounds more like Orwell than the “break down sessions he described for us: physical and mental torture and sleep deprivation for days on end.

This, obviously, was a very serious game. What Min Ko Naing was doing was turning the logic of blame around, showing the men on the other side how they were the ones not respecting the law, even the law as they understood it and claimed to enforce it. Beyond the illegal pictures, Min Ko Naing said: “I told the judge it was not legal, I pointed out that the legal process was not respected.” To myself and Thinn Thinn, the whole thing sounded like a mockery of justice. Min Ko Naing continued, explaining that “the judges were not introducing themselves, they wouldn’t explain under what charges we were being detained”.

While Myanmar has evolved significantly in the last decade, one thing Min Ko Naing explained to us rings all too true in 2017. One thing he told his judges then was that “whatever happens, in the end, you’ll just open an envelope and you’ll read the sentence that will be imposed on you”. Ironically, and again, with some echo to the present, one judge actually sued him for defamation. He was sentenced to six months in jail for this alone.

This would pale in comparison to the 65 years Min Ko Naing (and several of his colleagues) were sentenced to serve in November 2008.

This is why Min Ko Naing’s story, beyond its human aspects, is so important at the political level, now that Myanmar has started to open up and embark on a political process — a process that has so far led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including Min Ko Naing himself, on January 13, 2012, three months before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered parliament. The challenges facing the present NLD government, in the context of the continued influence of the military, have a lot to do with the fact that these representatives of the state have remained its backbone. Most of these men individually came to talk to Min Ko Naing at one point or another “to tell me ‘we are on your side’, give me cigarettes or snacks” but went back “to shouting as soon as even only one other person was present… but I understood them and I never created problems for them”, most of them probably do support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the secrecy of the voting booth, but whom they support with their actions and take their orders from, on a daily basis, is a different story.

Min Ko Naing told the magazine Asia Week, in 1988, fully conscious of the metaphorical power behind the nom de guerre he had chosen: “I will never die. Physically, I maybe will be dead, but many others Min Ko Naing will come to replace me”. He was right, and one of them is in the room, and she is translating his words to me. She is no revolutionary by any stretch of the mind, and has never participated in a demonstration. She is part of a civil society movement that is plural, varied, where activists sometimes disagree on strategy, and even, plainly, on politics.

This civil society, and the entire country, owes eternal gratitude to Min Ko Naing and his fellow activists from the 1988 generation. In their millions, they do respect him more than virtually anyone else other than General Aung San and his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

As a taxi takes us away from Min Ko Naing, and as we sit for a coffee to debrief the interview, there is no denying that he has given us joy and hope.

Min Ko Naing is not a monument to the past. As he discussed the importance of developing capacity for research in Myanmar with Thinn Thinn, or education reform with French scholar Nicolas Salem-Gervais (who accompanied us), after we’re done with the interview it is very clear he is a very sharp, brilliant, and absolutely committed activist of the present day.

We asked him about the choice made by some of his colleagues, like Ko Ko Gyi, to form a party and contest elections: “Two things could happen: form a party, or join civil society. I understand both, but I would choose to live with the community. I know the significance of people in forming power”.

And he indeed seems to believe, as much as he ever did, in the power of the people. In September 2007, his guards had to rush to Pakkoku, where apparently things were happening. Then the echoes of what had become the Saffron Revolution grew louder.

And he sees the roots of the current process in this movement. To him, the military “tried to release the tension because of the Saffron Revolution. This led to change”.

Min Ko Naing taught us, this day in July, the value of patience, the value of having a sense of humor, and he reminded us of the fact that “politics is a marathon, not a 100m”. He told us that “injustice will happen, and temporarily it will win, so you have to wait”.

In 2007, a few months before the Saffron Revolution, I met an activist from Rwanda who had survived a genocide I had researched before working on Myanmar. We were in Rabat, Morocco, visiting a museum. He leaned towards me, and told me with a magnificent smile: “In Rwanda, we make museums with bones. Hey, you make museums with what you have”.

Min Ko Naing also had a joke about his time in jail: “by meditating, by concentrating, thinking of all the places I had never been, I was able to be more relaxed”. And that, not knowing how long his ordeal would last, “I sometimes thought that the longer I stayed in jail, the more I meditated, the more I made merit, so, well, maybe it was better that I would stay in for a while”.

That capacity to make jokes, even very dark jokes, based on one’s own suffering, so horrific it cannot be told, is what makes survivors such special people. And what should make the rest of us so humble.

As I read a few sources to write this piece, I realized U Kyi Maung was born in 1920, the year students rose against tyranny for the first time, in Myanmar. The cycle does not seem to be broken, and students will most probably conquer kings for generations to come.

Mael Raynaud is an independent analyst based in Yangon, with 15 years of experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. Thinn Thinn is an independent researcher. She holds a BA in sociology from the Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, USA.