Yangon Having people go around the room and introduce themselves is a common routine, but having people say their names and then the years they were imprisoned is somehow both sobering and immediately inspirational because just those words from former students, lawyers, professors, and regular workers who were jailed for advocating for democracy speaks volumes about the resilience of human will and the depth of commitment to change necessary to construct freedom. I did not need to go around the room with our Organizers’ Forum delegation to find out if all of the organizers among us were humbled.
We met with two generations of prisoners who now with the current liberalization of government were organizing groups to advocate for change within the limits they are allowed. One was the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) most of whom were older and were veterans of the democracy struggles from 1988 forward. The other was a younger group and was of the 96-98 generation of student activists who courageously challenged the military government embedded in power by then and were jailed afterwards and had now formed the Myanmar Institute for Democracy. The total number of political prisoners was estimated at 10,000, but many in our group felt that number was under-counted, and of course did not include refugees who fled the country to avoid arrest.
The men of the FPPS were angry and passionate, but remarkably good spirited. One talked to me of his visit to New Orleans as a seaman in1990 when he was still on the run after 1988 before returning and being arrested and imprisoned. They laughed at their inside jokes calling their prison their “school,” where most of them had learned either English or Japanese from former university professors of those languages who organized daily classes. There was hollowness to the laughter when they described the original crimes like passing a leaflet or using the internet and the conditionality of their release, which under section 401 could be terminated at any time forcing them to serve a new sentence and anything remaining on their old stint. Political prisoners refused to work as part of their sentence extending their time as well. Now they were walking a fine line between the change they wanted to make and the tenuousness of their current freedom. Their current project “at this time” as they continually called it, was to help reintegrate former prisoners into families and communities, and, importantly, to rehabilitate them with access to employment. Our cab drivers for example were FPPS members who had combined to found Golden Heart and were handling our transport needs in Yangon. They wanted to imagine themselves as able perhaps after the 2015 elections to play a role again in political life.
Similarly the Myanmar Institute for Democracy was running workshops as capacity-building for communities looking to grapple with the issues of democracy, corruption, and other concerns. They were trying to distinguish themselves in this new environment so that they could make a difference. They wanted to engage office holders at the township level and try to introduce “rational” debate to move the needle forward to greater change.
Both of these groups were sustained and funded by significant contributions from their members, between 3000 and 5000 kyats per month (remember that 35000 kyats is the minimum wage now in Myanmar). Their memberships were not large in either case but between 50 or 70 activists and they were run and staffed by volunteers. Neither relished outside funding from NGO’s or foundations, but FPPS was now debating taking money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US civic building institute run by the Democrats, and MID was caught in a fierce internal debate about whether to seek funds to try to expand more rapidly. All of this was ironic given their track record in just a few years and their current sustainability, but they were anxious to seize the time, rather than patient to grow with their base more permanently. We had a healthy exchange with the young leaders of MID about how they might hold onto their principles and build their organization with sweat rather than outside money.
Nonetheless we are rooting for theses veterans of the street battles for democracy whose passions are still fire hot. They may have left prison, but they have not left the fight.