By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
During the seven and a half years that Bo Kyi was in prison, he was beaten, tortured, threatened, and left to die. What kind of terrible crime did he commit? He, a young man in his 20s, participated in a peaceful demonstration. Kyi was among the few who survived the inhumane conditions of a Burmese prison and escaped the country’s harsh military rule. His story, and the stories of others who survived but continue to risk their lives for the freedom of political prisoners, are presented in “Into the Current: Burma’s Political Prisoners,” directed and produced by Jeanne Hallacy. Last month, Hallacy and Kyi visited Seattle to promote the film and to speak of the changing political situation in Burma. About two weeks later, the National League for Democracy (NLD) announced that democracy leader and advocate Aung Sun Suu Kyi had won a seat in Parliament.
Hundreds of political prisoners, including well-known leaders like Min Ko Naing and Aung San Suu Kyi, who have dedicated their lives to the fight for democracy in Burma, have spent time behind bars. Some have already died, while others carry such lengthy sentences that they may never set foot outside prison walls. For his ‘brothers and sisters’ who are still imprisoned, Kyi has made their freedom his life’s pursuit.
Without taking risks, you cannot do anything
Kyi knows that he is on the Burmese military’s hit list. He remains in Mae Sot, Thailand, a town that shares a border with Burma. That is where his organization, Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), helps current and former political prisoners and their families. It takes a certain type of courage to continue, but facing danger is nothing new to Kyi. It began with his involvement in the 1988 uprising, when Kyi was in his final year of college, studying literature. There, he witnessed privileged youth who were related to government officials, beating students and getting away with the crime, Kyi decided that change was needed.
“We did not like the way [the] government solved the problem. That’s why we did the demonstration,” said Kyi, “I knew it was dangerous. I knew I could be in prison or I could be killed. [I knew I could be killed] during the demonstration.”
Kyi survived, but others did not. Seeing colleagues gunned down directly in front of his own eyes ignited Kyi’s desire for change. He participated in another demonstration on Aug. 8, 1988 (known as 8888), in which Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the national democracy leader. Min Ko Naing, Kyi’s childhood friend, also assumed leadership, rallying more than 3,000 students to join the peaceful demonstration. The uprising, however, resulted in yet another violent response by the military, and many were killed.
Imprisoned ― in and out of prison walls
After escaping arrest in 1989, Kyi was imprisoned on March 16, 1990.
“In prison, I was taken to interrogation. For 36 hours, I was not allowed to drink or eat anything. [I was] forced to stand for many hours … I was interrogated for eight days. During those days, they did not provide water, I could not see daylight,” recalled Kyi.
He was then confined to a tiny cell and denied even paper and pen.
“Your brain will deteriorate,” said Kyi.
While in solitary confinement, Kyi was determined to be free. He made it a goal to study English. With a bit of luck and dedication, he was placed next to a professor who knew English.
He practiced writing with bricks and medicine.
After his release, Kyi was shunned by society due to his ex-prisoner status, and he could not find a job. He was also harassed and intimidated by the military.
“[Countries like Burma] do not have the concept of ‘political prisoners,’ ” explained Hallacy of “Into the Current: Burma’s Political Prisoners.”
“I was marginalized by the system,” said Kyi.
Government officials imprisoned Kyi yet again as a preventative measure against participation in other protests.
After his release, Kyi fled Burma during the night.
Gone, but still working with his colleagues
AAPP currently works both inside and outside Burma. The organization focuses on collecting information about political prisoners and prison conditions. It also gives assistance to political prisoners and their families by providing food, medicine, and financial assistance to enable families to visit their loved ones in prison. Outside the country, the organization keeps track of prisoners’ statuses and whereabouts, provides basic necessities such as food and medicine, protects ex-prisoners from harassment and intimidation by the military upon release, aids in the reconstruction of ex-political prisoners’ lives, including both their mental and physical well-being, and secures support from foreign governments and organizations to apply pressure on the Burmese military to stop further persecution of political prisoners and obtain their release.
“Into the Current: Burma’s Political Prisoners” follows the stories of former political prisoners, including Kyi, who risk their lives for their jailed colleagues’ rights and freedom.
The film’s purpose is to promote international awareness of Burma’s situation and advocate for the release of those who have no place in prison.
“[We want to create] meaningful dialogue between the military and ethnic leaders … to increase hope … [and foster] sustainable, nonviolent change,” said Hallacy.
Kyi serves as the film’s advocate. He traveled the United States with Hallacy to promote the film and campaigning on behalf of AAPP. The campaign hopes to rally interest groups, such as university student organizations, to advocate for current political prisoners and to raise scholarship funds for the children of political prisoners.
“I want people to know what is happening in Burma,” said Kyi. “I want people to help release all political prisoners.” (end)
More information can be found at www.aappb.org.
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at email@example.com.