Authoritarianism and Dissent: 21st Century Horizons with Ko Bo Kyi

Ko Bo Kyi, former Burmese student activist, political prisoner, and founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Ko Bo Kyi: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak at the second Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. 

Actually, today, we have already heard about former political prisoner experiences. I’m really sorry for North Korea and also Cuba, and others like China, and many dictatorship countries for the cities under the dictatorship, everybody suffers like this. Also, Burma is also one of the dictatorships, and one of the worst countries. So, therefore, we suffer the same. So very simply, to be erased in our society like dictatorship countries, very easy-speaking the truth. Because we cannot see rule of law, there is a problem in this society. In Burma also, we do not see any rule of law at the time, anyone can be arrested anytime. Also, the secretary of the Geneva Summit requested me to talk about my experiences a little bit. So therefore, first of all, for part one, I will speak about my experiences later. 

Like in 1988, I was a university student and did not have [a] political background. I did not know what was politics because [in] 1988, we [had] never heard of democracy, and human rights. Even the words democracy and human rights, we did not know even though I was a university student. But in the meanwhile, many students were killed in the university compound. So, there is an eyewitness to that. So, when I saw [this] kind of key brutal killing of students, even though I was not killed, but at the time I really wanted […] the truth. Therefore, we demanded the government to say the truth, to solve the problem peacefully. We did not have [a] student union because all the unions are illegal in Burma. Because of the dictatorship, they know the power of civil society, the role of the civil society. Therefore, as soon as they got in power, the first thing they did was to dynamite the Student Union building, including students in the building; that is the first thing they did. In our time, we understood that if there is no student union, there is no civil society: we cannot uphold, we cannot be peaceful, we cannot have rule of law. Therefore, in our time we established ourselves, even though we were not recognized as a legal organization; we [could not] register, we did it ourselves. As a result of that I was arrested. I led a demonstration calling for the release of all student detainees who are in prison, then to recognize our student union as a legal organization; just a simple thing I did. Because of that, I was arrested and given three years. I did not have a lawyer, just only a military court. A military officer asked one question, did I commit a crime? I replied absolutely no. Then he replied that three years imprisonment with hard labor, that’s all. Finished the trial. Then I was placed in isolation. For 23 hours and 40 minutes, I had to stay in the tiny cell. Just [for] 20 minutes, I had to go outside. So I had nothing to do. But, I never felt depressed. When I was alone in the tiny cell, I’d walk inside the room. Then I made the decision to study my English lesson from before I was arrested. I couldn’t speak English. So then in prison, I had plenty of time. But the problem is I had no facility, I had no teachers. But I was very lucky. The next-door room was a Professor; he could speak English, French, Chinese and Japanese. Therefore, when the prison guard was away, I requested him to speak one sentence or two sentences. Then he spoke one or two sentences, then I wrote down on the concrete, then I memorized. So that’s the way I could study my English lesson when I was in prison for three years. I was very lucky because the military had arrested not only students but also professors and other teachers. Therefore I got a chance. 

Then, even though I was released from prison for the first time, I was re-arrested again for another time. At that time I did not do anything, they did not show any evidence, but they offered me to be an informant for them. At that time, I demanded just only two points. One is to release all political prisoners. Second is to enter a dialogue with our leader Don Sensoji, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, who is still [on] house arrest. But at the time, they wrote that they cannot agree to my demands. I had no other ways to sin. And I replied that no, I cannot join with you because you do not keep promises. Because after the 1988 demonstration, they gave a promise to hold an election. So we participated in the election in 1990. Our leader, a National League for Democracy Party, led by Don Sensoji. They party won a landslide victory, we won. [But], they did not transfer the power to the winning party. Before the election, they [had] already given a promise [that] after the election, they [would] transfer the power to that winning party. Since 1992, they [have] not [transferred] the power to the winning party. And that day after I was released, we continued demanding to transfer the power to that winning party, and then to allow freedom. But unfortunately, they did not allow it, and I was arrested again because at the time they said that three years imprisonment is not enough for me, and I cannot take a lesson then from three years imprisonment. Therefore they provided me with another five years imprisonment. So that’s the will, I was rearrested, again in prison.

Even though I was in prison, I did not feel depressed and continued my studying. Even though I was not allowed to read and write [to] study. I tried to pursue the prison guards, to smuggle in one page of a dictionary. Finally I got one prison guard to bring in one page of a dictionary, then I memorized it. After that I ate it. That’s the way I ate a lot of dictionary when I was in prison. 

So that is one thing, that is lucky because they want me to be to be dumb. They don’t want me to keep my physical. They want to keep my intellectual thinking. That is the worst kind of psychological torture. But, I tried my best not to be killed by the military regime and dictatorship. I tried to survive and tried to continue my studying. That’s the way [I was] very lucky. But many other political prisoners are not lucky like me. Many of my friends, they died in prison because of torture, because of starvation. And then some people are suffering from mental illness and mental problems. So because the prison tried to rob you of your dignity, and the prison tried to kill you, or at least your intellectual thinking, that is how the prison trains.

In our time, we tried our best, but if we cannot change the political system, we cannot stop such kind of torture, such kind of brutal treatment. There is the problem. That is something we cannot only do ourselves. We need the international community’s help. So that is really important for the time being. 

No, not just only the prison system. Another thing is freedom in Burma. You know in Burma, one mobile telephone costs nearly two thousand dollars. But you cannot buy [it] easily; even if you have money, you cannot buy [it] easily, that is Burma. The internet is [much] worse than in other countries. So you cannot use the internet freely; you can use the internet just with a censor. So all the internet cafes are watched by the military intelligence or their informers. Therefore, people cannot use [the] internet very freely, cannot visit many websites. So if the people in Burma visited our website, they will be charged and they will be given at least 15 years. So now there are more than 2100 political prisoners in Burma. They will [be transferred] to the remote area very far away from their family. They do not receive proper medical treatment. Therefore, 143 political prisoners died in prison [between] 1988 and 2010.

Now, more than 200 political prisoners are suffering from serious problems, but they do not have the proper medical treatments. Starvation is very common. For the time being, in some prison[s], there are no prison hospitals or prison doctors, no medication. Therefore, prisoners were injured. Once you’re using a needle for many people, that’s how the prison contributed HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and other diseases. 

And then, journalists are enemies of the state, that is how the dictatorship regarded journalists. 

Very recently, many journalists were arrested because they tried to make an interview with some monks. And then, they tried to smuggle out those video footage to the outside. Because of this, they were given 26 years. Even though the students were given four years, because they tried to do the demonstration, and then distribute a leaflet. Just the way they did [it] was very simple, just freedom of assembly, the freedom of distribution for you know, the freedom of opinion. So the dictatorship in Burma did not tolerate that.  

Now they are trying to hold an election in 2010. But as we are saying, many leaders are in prison. Without the release of those leaders, that election will not be credible. So, we will not regard that election as a credible election or that the election will produce positive results. That election will produce more problems in Burma. 

Therefore, we are trying to encourage the European Union leaders not to recognize [the] upcoming election without the release of all political prisoners, and then to review the constitution, and then to help not to do the political dialogue between the military regime and our leader, Don Sensoji, and ethnic minorities. 

So because of the time limitation I wanted to stop this. Then, if you have any questions we can talk later more. So thank you very much for listening.

Speakers and Participants

Ko Bo Kyi

Burmese activist and former political prisoner, founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners


Burma: Is What you See, What you Get? with Zoya Phan

Zoya Phan, one of the leading activists in Europe for democracy in Myanmar, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks. Full remarks Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga: We are going to start with Ms. Zoya Phan from Burma, who was forced to leave her