Ko Ko Gyi 88 Generation Student leader at “Forum 2000” Media and Democracy Prague 22 October 2012

Discussion of Ko Ko Gyi in Forum2000: Media and Democracy
22 October 2012, Prague

The Powerful Powerless
Ko Ko Gyi
First, I would like to thank to the event organizers for giving me this wonder

ful opportunity. It is my great honor to be invited to talk about the notion of “The powerful powerless” in the context of Burma/Myanmar and its democratic struggle. Since our moral connection to President Havel is so profound, I would like to convey our deepest condolence to late President Havel, his family and people of Czech Republic.

Actually, Mr. Havel has been familiar to our people since DASSK in her speeches repeatedly elaborated Mr. Havel’s teachings, the idea of the power of powerless. Also thank to a report entitled “Threat to the Peace: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma” jointly authored by Mr. Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu which I believe he did it on moral ground. The report brought the highest international attention by putting Burma on the UNSC agenda, and also provided a powerful new direction in international effort to bring democracy in our country. President Havel’s contribution to Myanmar was not merely in the policy area but perhaps more importantly in moral and political inspiration. When I was in the prison, I had heard about Havel’s famous essay “the Power of the Powerless” through the new comers, much younger than me. Only when I was released first time in March 2005, I had a chance to read in Burmese. I had a strong wish to meet in person. And then I was arrested again in 2007 and sentenced to 65 years and 6 months. Unfortunately, only when I was going to be released, President Havel passed away quietly. At that same day, I lonely celebrated the golden anniversary of my birthday in a small sell by myself. It was a sad coincidence. He gave me a flashlight to look back the life of a “green grocer”.

I was born and raised in hardworking and poor family. My father was typewriter clerk and my mother opened fermented grocery shop in my home town market. I had to get up early in the morning to help my mother to prepare her shop before I reviewed my homework and headed to the school. It was before 1988 (8-8-1988 Four Eight Democracy Uprising). We lived in the closed society where the military-backed parties run the country under the banner of Burmese Way to Socialism.

Under the socialist regime, the literature available was very limited, mostly ruling party’s crapy propaganda. There were no independent social and political organizations that I could join. My routine was my family work, my school and sitting teashop in my neighborhood. I simply couldn’t comprehend why we were poor even though we worked very hard. Why our factories nearby stopped running despite the state-owned radio station kept broadcasting highest productivity rate and growth year after another. Why some of my elder friends who once took part in student protests in 1970s disappeared from their houses. In short, why poverty, why lie and why repression. I was not able to figure out clearly. 

Then there was a crucial event hit us with big blow. The socialist government demonetized the country’s high currency notes in 1987 September. All of the sudden, all hard-earned money in our family’s hand became worthless papers. There was disruption in our hand-to-mouth living. The sense of unjust grew on my mind. We students protested the demonetization. After series of intermittent unrests, some students got killed in early 1988. I myself managed to make a narrow escape when the military and riot police squeezed from both sides and crack-downed on unarmed student protesters in March 16 of 1988. To me, that was a turning point. That cold-blood killing triggered moral outrage. Together with sense of injustice and moral outrage, I said to myself “enough is enough”. I vowed to fight against it and redressed the wrongdoing in our society: from poverty to repression. This is the struggle for dignity.

Human is not passive agent without choice, and obedience is not uni-directional process, as President Havel clearly articulated. In his essay, Havel said that “since the main pillar of post-totalitarianism is living a lie, the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. (p. 148)” I decided to break the lie and self-complacency.

We students organized Student Unions in University campuses. In fact, the Union was illegal since the junta dynamited student union building in 1962. We circulated anti-dictatorship pamphlets. We called for nation-wide non-violent popular uprising in August 8, 1988 (historic Four Eight Movement). People took to the streets calling for restoration of democracy and human rights in our country. We called for decent and dignified life. It was the largest popular revolt in our history. My faith in human being as moral agent who is capable of making choice for himself or herself has become solidified after being part of that historic wave of mass movement.

I often hear the cynicism of some scholars/think-tank groups, diplomats and journalists who say that Myanmar dissidents are no longer relevant and they no longer represent people’s voice. We have to work with the people in power (rather than people in need). I would say that such analysis is blatantly wrong. They should better read Havel’s writing and carry it along before they make any out-of-touch comments. President Havel once taught us that “society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities.” It is extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face. In his word, “None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population.” Sure, people often fake the fear and people often play dumb in order to avoid or minimize the risk. Just because of their apparent face you are seeing you can’t judge that you know their hidden faces. It is clear that those who underestimate the people and the dissident movement only count tangible and visible power as the only strength in society. They failed to appreciate intangible power and how it becomes a formidable force when people choose to live with truth. Look at the 1990 elections and recent 2012 by-election in Myanmar. How people were brave enough to show their hidden face whenever they have a chance. Whenever I meet elites who tend to underestimate the people’s courage and capacity of making moral choice, I remember an Ethiopian proverb that says “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silent farts.”

I spent 18 years in prisons in past 24 years. Whenever the feeling of frustration and mood of dejection crept into my mind, I always tried to reconnect with the faith that I have in moral capacity of the human being, in particular of our people of Myanmar. This empowered my inner strength. I not only lived but also matured myself in prison with my political conviction, sense of humor and Buddhist outlook of life. I never regret what I have done politically. I always maintained positive attitude with my sense of humor and I always try to see larger context. As a Buddhist, I view life as a process of constant impermanence from womb to tomb. Why I should be so stuck with fear as fear in itself is a part of impermanence. In Buddhist teaching, there are five great opportunities that are difficult to obtain or scare (dullabha). Among the five opportunities, birth as a human being is the most important. Human life is dullabha: so precious to obtain. If we value the dullabha (preciousness) of human life, we wouldn’t violate it. We would not allow others to violate and abuse human dullabha, human dignity and human rights. We human would become sensitive to injustice, inequality and repression. We would have a strong will to fight back against any attempt to dehumanize our dullabha.

All in all, I would say this notion of dullabha as a foundation for self-respect, dignity and power of the powerless. Now our country is in the process of political transition. Therefore, to make the National Reconciliation, we need to convince the people in power, at the same time, we have to encourage the people in need to value their dullabha. I strongly believe that this notion of human preciousness dullabha will bring forth our energy and positive power for national reconciliation and nation building.

Thank you all.

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