To fight or reform? The role of Myanmar’s former prisoners

Can the country’s former political prisoners construct an alternative politics as the country evolves?

Rohingya Muslims fleeing sectarian viole
Many thousands of Rohingya have fled recent sectarian violence [AFP]

Cambridge, MA –
In a recent trip to Mae Sot, the Thai town on Myanmar’s border where Myanma dissidents have lived in exile for two decades, I was surprised to hear former political prisoners expressing consternation – even dismay – that the main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), had swept Myanmar’s recent by-elections.

Whereas many inside Myanmar were thrilled at the symbolic victory conveyed in the NLD’s winning 43 of 44 available parliamentary seats, those on the border were less sanguine. More than one told me that participation in the corrupted (and corrupting) parliamentary political system would undermine any radical role the opposition could retain.

The NLD has never much cared for mass mobilisation, preferring to conduct elite-level politics

One suggested that the NLD should only have contested the minimum three seats necessary to legally remain a political party, effectively maintaining its status as outside and un-captured by the procedural political process. This would allow it to continue its oppositional role, “working to mobilise the people”. He continued, talking about Suu Kyi: “Outside of the national parliament she is a national leader. Inside, she just represents one constituency.”

In a way it is strange for the exiles to read the NLD this way. This is because the NLD has never much cared for mass mobilisation, preferring to conduct elite-level politics that cultivated support and paid obeisance to political idioms that emerged from Brussels or Boston rather than Myanmar. It is possible, however, that the exiles believe that the NLD’s “choice” to eschew grassroots politics actually derived from real constraints: the military regime that controlled the country in different permutations for a half-century (and is only recently giving way to more civilian rule) locked Aung San Suu Kyi away and shuttered NLD township offices, effectively preventing the NLD from mobilising the public.

Regardless, the NLD has always been mostly an elite institution, and as such its turn to formal politics should be applauded: it will gain much needed experience in how to govern. The party will sweep the 2015 elections, and it would be disastrous to have it come to power knowing little about how a bill actually becomes a law in the nation’s ever-evolving political landscape.

‘A different kind of politics’

Indeed, not participating might also be dangerous: political cognoscenti in Yangon are already murmuring about the risk of the military emerging from its barracks in 2015 if the NLD practices what the generals perceive as exclusionary and vindictive politics. The years between stand as an opportunity for the NLD to work with the dominant Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and its reformers, quelling any efforts of reactionary hardliners to undermine detente.

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But the dissidents’ statements also demonstrate the need for a different kind of politics to run in parallel to what occurs in parliament: a political programme that mobilises the long-excluded masses. The problem is that the current reforms are largely running through elite structures and actors that ignore Myanmar’s remarkably vast civil society groups, and the people they represent. These grassroots associations and networks allowed the people to survive under a capricious and abusive regime, operating where people live and die. They retain immense knowledge about what occurs there; they have ideas for better policies waiting to be mined.

That said, my research over the past number of years has focused on the particular ways these organisations negotiated and navigated despotic military-state power, finding that organisations exchanged political critique for the freedom to deliver services. In essence, civil society begged for permission to do the state’s job on its behalf. As a result, civil society groups now lack the experience and the confidence to translate their knowledge into policy advocacy, even though space may be emerging for such work.

This is not lost on the dissident community, who seem to increasingly recognise the importance of connecting with the masses, both through their associations and on issues they care about. 

“We want people’s participation, and if we want that, we need to talk about what people need,” said Bo Kyi, the head of the Mae Sot-based Association for Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP), the central advocacy organisation for former and current political prisoners.

“That is a shift because of the current situation.”

Aung Khaing, also of AAPP, noted that civil society groups must be politicised, given their immense role as an interface with citizens.

But despite this understanding, and their eagerness to re-engage, many dissidents also smell a trap. As Aung Khaing put it: “We can see this is not a genuine change, that there’s something beneath the surface. We cannot point to it, but we can feel it. We’ve been in prison, constantly fighting with them, we can sense the trap … Remember 23 years of terrible military rule. These are the same people in different clothes. They present themselves as the saviours of Burma, and they are the ones who killed so many people? Come on.”

Hence, there is a deep ambivalence regarding how dissidents perceive the changes and the need to intervene in them. How they navigate their potential role in this regard may predict the future course of the nation’s political evolution, and indeed the very shape of Myanmar’s democracy.

In order to comprehend the challenge, the political prison itself – which stands as a political space that both forges connections between dissidents but divides the former prisoners from many dissidents who did not go through the prison – must be explored.

Re-enter the former political prisoners

The political prison has stood for the past 40 years as a highly ambiguous space in Myanmar’s political culture: it has simultaneously been rightfully feared for the abuses and pain that it has promised, but it has also ultimately been embraced by those who have chosen to participate in political opposition. This is because it stands as a place where one earns his or her standing as an authentic struggler, to the point where going to prison has been described as essential for building political credibility.

For some it’s sad. People who have committed their lives to this, spent whole lives in prison, they tell me: ‘Now, we are unemployed, we have nothing to do.’

– Myanma political observer

The massive commitment involved in “doing one’s time” creates a divide: prison galvanised a committed opposition but also polarised it, breeding perpetual opposition as a particular mode of political expression. As Aung Khaing put it: “Prison prepares you for an oppositional political role, but not for now.”

Their original tactics don’t have the same purchase, even if those who utilise them feel they are as necessary now as ever. As a Myanma political observer working closely with many former political prisoners in Yangon put it: “For some it’s sad. People who have committed their lives to this, spent whole lives in prison, they tell me: ‘Now, we are unemployed, we have nothing to do. Before, we could go on the street, we could shout at the government, we could go to the prison. But now these are useless.'”

And yet, while Bo Kyi notes these concerns, he then demurs: “You can’t remain so opposed that you miss out on an opportunity.” And this stands as the paradox: these are the most staunch opponents, but they also see the opportunity to act politically, and understand their power to influence people and policy.

Indeed, former political prisoners as a group have amassed immense social capital, bestowed on them by a public which notes their colossal sacrifice. Moreover, the intensity of the experience in prison developed indissoluble inter-subjective bonds across generations and spaces. “We appreciate sacrifices of previous [prisoners]. For instance, we didn’t have to do hard labour because of those who came before us,” says Aung Khaing.

The intimacy and continuity has facilitated the maintenance of affiliation: diffused into think tanks, political parties, media houses, small businesses, etc, the former political prisoners share an identity and often a commitment to opposition and activism as well. For instance, those in exile speak about their enthusiasm for supporting what develops inside, eager to provide skills and networks that they attained while in Thailand or further abroad.

The combination of vast social power and a diffuse network allows the former political prisoners to potentially stand both within the political realm and above it at the same time: not as a political party – many told me that one common ideology would be impossible – but in continual contact with all of the parties, as well as with government, community-based groups, social movements and cultural organisations.

“With the generals no longer a clear enemy, it seems that the political prisoners are displacing this desire for an opponent onto the Rohingya.

And conversations in Yangon and on the border suggest that, recently, the de facto leaders of the 88 Generation Students (88GS) – the most dominant affiliation – have begun to self-organise to this end, beginning to leverage this liminal position. For instance, on April 17, the 88GS organised a rally to protest the continuing incarceration of forgotten political prisoners; during the by-elections on April 1 they monitored polls, reported irregularities and gave impromptu civic education classes. According to Bo Kyi: “The former political prisoners went to village[s] and addressed the issues of water. They are concerned with mobilising the people … to mobilise them and give them the ideology of [an] open society.”

What kind of leadership?

It still remains to be seen how these diffuse local actions will aggregate into a leadership ethos at a national level. Early returns are mixed. As reported on Al Jazeera, Ko Ko Gyi, the effective leader of the 88GS, displayed a sad exclusionary callousness when he recently denied the standing of the long-oppressed Rohingya as a national group.

Coming in the wake of the past fortnight’s ethnic violence in western Arakan, Ko Ko Gyi fomented further hatred and chauvinism; but his insistence that the Rohingya are “Bengali”, despite evidence that they’ve been in the country for multiple centuries reflects a sentiment shared by his colleagues. A former political prisoner friend of mine contacted me expressing sympathy for the Rohingya situation, only to then suggest that they should be deported to the West.

This incident stands as a distillation of the dilemma facing former political prisoners: can they escape the us-versus-them mentality that was created in jail, while maintaining their militant fire? Indeed, with the generals no longer a clear enemy, it seems that the political prisoners are displacing this desire for an opponent onto the Rohingya. The irony is that people such as Ko Ko Gyi are perhaps the only ones who could begin to change collective attitudes towards the Rohingya – and indeed other minorities, long seen by the majority Bamar as backwards secessionist drug-traffickers.

Political prisoners might insist that their suffering in prison is connected to the long suffering of the Rohingya, and likewise to the others who languished in various ways under the military regime. While these miseries are non-equivalent, they do share a fundamental connection with Myanmar, and can be used to construct narratives that build a shared future. This is where the intense and critical energies of the political prisoners should be placed: creating a better society for all.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is Founding Research Fellow at the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights and an Advisory Board Member with the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at Harvard University.