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We Are Not Pro-Anyone, We Rre Only Pro-Burma : Ko Bo Kyi

By Akanksha Mehta and Ava Patricia Avila

02 November, 2010

An Interview with Burmese Activist and Former Political Prisoner- Ko Bo Kyi

Burma has been under a military-dominated regime since 1962, when General Ne Win led a coup, toppling the civilian government under the tight control of the military-led State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Burmese military regime has since then suppressed political activism, engaged in several human rights violations, and disallowed free and fair elections. On November 7, 2010 , Burma will hold multi-party elections for the first time in twenty years. The elections form a part of the seven step “path to democracy” proposed by the SPDC.

The military regime's leader General Than Shwe has pledged to release Burmese political prisoners in amnesty before the upcoming elections. However, there is increasing international skepticism about the military regime's commitment to `legitimate` political process and the mitigation of human rights abuses. At the 17 th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit held in Vietnam from October 28-30, 2010, Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan stated that representatives from the military junta did not give any indication whether Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's detained pro-democracy leader, would be released on 13 November, the date on which her house arrest is due to expire

With a few days to the election we met Ko Bo Kyi, a former Burmese political prisoner, and pro-democracy activist, at a Human Rights Conference in Bangkok , Thailand . Bo Kyi was imprisoned and tortured for seven years and three months in Burma . While his father and sisters still remain in Burma , Bo Kyi now lives in Mae Sot, a Thai town at the Thai-Burmese border, where he is the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). In 2008, Human Rights Watch honored him with the Alison Des Forges Defender Award for “his extraordinary activism and heroic efforts” to disclose the oppressions of the ruling junta and advocate for pro-democracy activists. In this interview, he elaborates on his own ordeal, torture and political imprisonment in Burma , as well Burmese politics and the upcoming elections.

You were first arrested in 1988. What was the situation in Burma at the time and what acts of “dissidence” led to your imprisonment?

In 1988, I was a final year student at university in Rangoon and I wanted to be a scholar. But in Burma , there is no student union, and no human rights. Many of my classmates were killed within the compounds of the university- in front of me. Watching all this, how could I stay silent? Therefore, I joined student demonstrations and demanded for the release of all student detainees. I was arrested because of my participation in these demos and protests.

What happened after you were arrested? While in prison, were you aware of the political developments in your country?

Immediately after my arrest, I was taken to an interrogation centre and for the next 36 hours I was denied food and water and was kicked and beaten repeatedly. I was not allowed to sleep for four days and was questioned by the officials. If my answers dissatisfied them, they would torture me more. In 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. I was informed that after the elections, power would be transferred to the winning party. I knew if that happened, I would be released soon. When the results were revealed and NLD won, we [the political prisoners] were very happy, but we soon realized that the results were being annulled. I was then transferred to a very remote prison.

What were the conditions in the remote prison and how were you treated?

I was kept in a tiny cell and I was only allowed to go out of the cell for 20 minutes everyday. They did not even let me study or read/write. They killed my intellect and my brain. I somehow sneaked in a dictionary and started teaching myself English. But they found a piece of paper I had written on and they began to torture me and beat me regularly. The prison guards told me if I wanted to stay, I should stay away from politics. That is how it is in Burma .

How long were you in prison the first time you were arrested? Why were you re-arrested?

I was released after three years in prison, and I had several discussions with the regime's leaders. They wanted me to become an informant and I agreed for the sake of others. But I continued to demand the release of all political prisoners and they arrested me again, saying that three years was not enough for me. I was sentenced for five years in prison. These five years, I learned a lot from other political prisoners and their experiences and studied a lot. I was in the same room as other activists and we became a `democracy`, exchanging our opinions and figuring out our differences.

What happened after your release from prison in 1998? How and why did you continue your fight for democracy?

Some of my colleagues did not survive the torture and starvation and died while I was in prison. How could I live in ignorance and discontinue my fight? Without the release of political prisoners, we cannot have a democracy in Burma . The resolution of Burma 's ethnic issues relies on a political dialogue between different leaders and activists, and this can only happen if political prisoners are released. After a year in Burma , I escaped to Thailand and in the year 2000, along with other former political prisoners, I started the Association for Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP).

What is the situation in Burma today with regards to political imprisonment? How many political prisoners still remain in Burma ?

As of today, there are 2193 political prisoners in Burma . In 2005-06 there were about 1100 prisoners, but after the monk-led protests in 2007, the numbers have doubled. These include activists, journalists, bloggers, monks, students, elderly, and even children as young as 14. The regime arrests anyone for “real or perceived opposition” to the regime. You can be arrested as a political prisoner for merely owning a copy of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many political prisoners are sentenced to over 65 years in prison, without any legal representation or fair trial.

You've talked about your ordeal and the torture you faced while in prison. Is it common for political prisoners to face torture while in detention? Is torture state policy in Burma ?

The UN defines torture as severe pain or suffering that is purposely inflicted with the consent of a public official for coercion, confessions or any discrimination. Torture in Burma occurs systematically as a means of punishment, confession, and instilling fear in those who oppose the regime. All political prisoners face torture at some point or the other during their detention. There are 43 prisons, 109 labor camps, and several interrogation centers where torture is carried out. The military regime states that Burma has no political prisoners, only “criminals”. However, political imprisonment and torture is state policy in Burma .

How does the AAPP assist political prisoners in Burma ?

Torture is designed to breakdown the identity of a strong man/woman turning a politician, a union leader, a leader of an ethnic community into a non-entity with no connection to the world outside of the torture chamber. The AAPP documents cases of torture and human rights violations in Burmese prisoners, keeping the identity of these prisoners alive. We work to secure the support of governments and international organizations to put pressure on the Burmese military regime to release political prisoners. We also provide political prisoners with basic necessities such as food and medicine and aid in the reconstruction of the lives of political prisoners.

The regime has stated that they will release political prisoners before the upcoming elections. Do you think the military regime will do so?

Some political prisoners will be released before the elections as a token gesture. They will be the one with 3-5 year sentences. Some will be released. Not key prisoners. Not all prisoners.

So given that, do you think the upcoming Burmese elections will be fair and legitimate?

I have my doubts about the legitimacy of the elections. Some Burmese (a minority) support the regime and they will vote. Many Burmese people will not vote for the regime, but the regime instills fear in the public and often forces them to vote. The elections will be rigged and the struggle for democracy will be far from over.

Then what is the role of the international community and in particular the region (ASEAN, India , and China ) in assisting the release of Burmese political prisoners and the Burmese struggle for democracy?

The international community needs to acknowledge repeatedly that 10,000 political activists have been arrested, detained, and tortured since 1988. An independent international investigation into torture and death of political activists behind bars is required. ASEAN leaders need to commit to human rights causes in their own nations and strengthen their civil society groups in order to assist the Burmese struggle. India supported our struggle for democracy before 1997, but since then has been on good terms with the military regime. India has geopolitical and geostrategic interests in Burma and has always proclaimed that India 's heart is in Burmese democracy, but India 's mind is in the regime. For China as well, Burma is geopolitically important. The Chinese are supportive of the regime as they fear that the rise of Burmese democracy will align Burma 's foreign policy as pro-West or pro-American.

But, they are so wrong. We want everyone to know. We are not pro-West, pro-China, pro-Inda or pro-anyone. We are only pro-Burma.

Akanksha Mehta and Ava Patricia C. Avila are both Associate Research Fellows at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore . They both work on political violence, conflict, insurgency, and human rights.