Min Ko Naing "Conqueror of Kings"
Of all the leaders who emerged during the heady days of Burma’s pro-democracy uprisings in 1988, Min Ko Naing, the "Conqueror of Kings," stands out as perhaps the most heroic. Min Ko Naing is the nom de guerre of Paw Oo Htun, who was born in Rangoon in 1962, the year his country’s fledgling democracy fell to the dictatorship of General Ne Win. Now, after a decade in prison for his role in instilling a sense of political responsibility in a people long accustomed to oppression, his name still expresses courage, commitment and hope.
The formative years of Min Ko Naing’s political consciousness coincided with the final years of Ne Win’s direct control over Burma. As a popular, artistically gifted student at the Rangoon Arts and Science University (RASU), he was an active member of the arts club, where he enjoyed reading, writing poems and drawing cartoons, especially satirical ones. But as Moe Thee Zun, a close friend and fellow activist, recalled, "Our conversations went beyond the usual topics of poems and cartoons, and we began to talk about politics and the country’s future."
In a country where student unions were banned by law, Min Ko Naing and his friends were forced to discuss their political views in secrecy. As the first signs of serious public unrest in Burma began to appear in 1985, the year Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Program Party demonetized the 100-kyat note, Min Ko Naing and his close colleagues secretly established an underground student union in anticipation of a political uprising.
Min Ko Naing’s creative character provided him with the means to express his views publicly through participation in than gyat, a traditional contest held during the Burmese New Year in April. This contest involves the performance of songs and plays by colorfully dressed troupes. Traditionally, the performers parodied those in power, but under Ne Win, direct criticism of the government was forbidden. When Min Ko Naing and his friends started their own troupe in 1985, however, they attempted to revive the original spirit of than gyat. Calling themselves "Goat Mouth and All-Seeing Eye," they made jokes at the expense of Ne Win’s regime and highlighted the lack of freedom and democracy in Burma, as well as the corruption among its officials.
Min Ko Naing’s Than Gyat troupe proved to be very popular with its audiences of ordinary Burmese. It also attracted the attention of the dreaded Military Intelligence Services (MIS), whose agents were seen following them one night after a performance. But convinced that the time would soon be ripe for political change, Min Ko Naing and his friends pursued their study of the country’s deteriorating political, social and economic conditions, and planned to start a political movement in the near future. They managed to conceal these activities from the watchful eyes of the MIS until 1988.
The democracy movement in 1988
Dissatisfaction with Ne Win’s regime came to a head in March 1988, when university students in Rangoon started protesting against the government’s brutal killing of some students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT).
On March 16, 1988, about 3,000 students came to listen to "a thin, dark-skinned young man with curly hair, a slight moustache and beard (who) was giving anti-government speeches at Taung Ngu dormitory in the RASU campus," recalled another prominent activist. "That was Min Ko Naing."
Min Ko Naing called on students to speak out against the government’s mistreatment. He also told them about the history of student movements in Burma, and the role they played in national politics, something the military government tried to play down in their textbooks. It was Min Ko Naing’s first public speech.
The students then marched to the Convocation Hall where Min Ko Naing and other student leaders gave more speeches. He told his audience about the fate of earlier students’ movements that had challenged the present regime: "Our brothers in the past sacrificed to topple this military dictatorship but their demands were only met with violence, bullets and killing."
When the speeches had ended, the students left the RASU campus to join a small demonstration at RIT. They soon found themselves facing a barricade of barbed wire manned by dozens of soldiers on the Prome Road.
Confronted with this show of force, Min Ko Naing asked the students to sing the national anthem and salute Burma’s independence heroes, including Gen Aung San, founder of the Burmese Army. Then they shouted, "The peoples’ soldiers are our soldiers."
Min Ko Naing and two other students then went to negotiate with the army officer in charge. Stressing the importance of good relations between the army and the people, he asked the officer to let them pass. The officer refused, insisting that he had to follow orders from his superiors, but Min Ko Naing’s words seemed to have had some effect. After hearing him speak the soldiers lowered their guns and the tension eased.
Suddenly, however, hundreds of riot police rushed in from behind and, without warning, started beating the students. Some tried to escape their attackers by fleeing to nearby Inya Lake, where many drowned. Those who couldn’t escape were severely beaten and taken to Insein prison.
After this, the government closed down the universities and colleges. Min Ko Naing and his fellow student activists went into hiding to continue their activities. When the universities and colleges were reopened in June, the activists immediately began distributing anti-government leaflets urging students to join the student movement. News of young students being tortured in Insein prison spread all over the country, but on the campuses, the protests continued and the student movement was gaining momentum.
On June 12, 1988, a crowd of students formed on the RASU campus to look at copies of a poster drawn by Min Ko Naing which depicted a girl being beaten by soldiers near Inya Lake. The caption below the drawing said: "Don’t forget March 16th. If we are cowed into submission and fail to rise up this time, then the country will be ruled by even more repressive rulers in the future." Several students were moved to speak out, demanding the release of student activists and the reinstatement of students who had been expelled from universities for political reasons. Within a week the government closed all universities and colleges again.
To everyone’s surprise, Ne Win stepped down the following month. His loyal supporter, Gen Sein Lwin, replaced him as president of Burma, and student activists were released from prison. However, as Sein Lwin was widely disliked, fresh protests broke out in cities and provincial towns. A day after the detained students were set free, on July 8, Min Ko Naing and his fellow students issued a statement saying "we shouldn’t be swayed by the release of our fellow students. We will continue to fight." It was on this occasion, in fact, that Paw Oo Tun officially became known as Min Ko Naing, "Conqueror of Kings."
The statement was also significant for another reason. It had been issued under the name of the All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions (ABFSU), an organization that had played an important role in the struggle against colonial rule. Many of its early leaders were later recognized as independence heroes and statesmen, but when Ne Win came into power in 1962, he brutally repressed the organization and had the historic Students' Union building demolished. The re-emergence of the ABFSU was undoubtedly seen as a formidable challenge to the Ne Win government.
The ABFSU released a series of statements signed by Min Ko Naing in the following weeks. By far the most important was the one calling for a general strike on August 8, the date that would always be remembered as the start of the 8-8-88 pro-democracy movement.
On August 8, 1988, despite the heavy presence of troops, intimidation and threats, thousands of people took to the streets. Anti-government demonstrations broke out simultaneously in towns and cities all over the country.
In Rangoon, workers, monks, and students marched to the center of the city to join the protests. In the afternoon, a large crowd gathered to listen to Min Ko Naing give a speech in front of the US embassy.
"We, the people of Burma, have had to live without human dignity for 26 years under an oppressive rule. We must end dictatorial rule in our country. Only people power can bring down our repressive rulers," he told the crowd.
He concluded his speech by saying, "If we want to enjoy the same rights as people in other countries, we have to be disciplined, united and brave enough to stand up to the dictators. Let’s express our sufferings and demands. Nothing is going to stop us from achieving peace and justice in our country."
That night, the army opened fire on demonstrators gathered in front of Rangoon’s City Hall. Hundreds of people were gunned down. Troops were given the same orders in the provinces, where hundreds more died.
The violence continued the next day, as crowds from around Rangoon converged to form huge masses of humanity demanding change. Once again, the soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.
On August 23, Min Ko Naing spoke to a large audience in front of Rangoon General Hospital, site of many recent killings. He was joined by Moe Thee Zun and Tin Oo, a former defense minister, who would later become a chairman of the NLD. Once again, Min Ko Naing called on people to be strong:
"World history has shown that people with strong spirit, unity, courage and discipline can bring down authoritarian governments. We believe in people power. Without your participation, we can achieve nothing."
On August 26, Min Ko Naing and other activists arranged for students in Rangoon to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public speech. Several hundred thousand people went to Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most famous sacred shrine, to hear her speak.
On August 28, Burma’s first student congress in 26 years was held on the RASU campus. Thousands of students, veteran politicians and former student activists from the 1960s came to celebrate the official reestablishment of the ABFSU, with Min Ko Naing as its leader. Prominent leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, sent congratulatory messages.
At the students’ conference, Min Ko Naing read one of his poems, entitled "Faith," in which he promised that he would be faithful and committed to the people’s struggle, which he regarded as a fight for the truth. He took an oath that out of respect for those who had died before him, he would continue the fight until democracy and human rights were restored. When he finished, the crowd applauded ecstatically.
At that time, transportation and communication had come to a complete halt, and the MIS was trying to create anarchy by releasing criminals from the prisons. The various pro-democracy groups that had begun to form organizing centers around government buildings such as police stations, schools, and universities dealt with this situation in a very orderly manner. They distributed rice to those in need and provided small amounts of money to the poor and to released prisoners to prevent looting. When mobs gathered to attack looters or suspected informers, members of the ABFSU always arrived to calm down and disperse the crowd. The ABFSU also reorganized communications and transportation and encouraged people to form local security teams together with monks and other respectable people.
Arrest by the Slorc
On September 4, Min Ko Naing met with US congressman Stephen J. Solarz, who was visiting Burma to meet with top political leaders in order to assess the situation. Min Ko Naing told Solarz that the military had not responded to the people’s demand for an interim government, and that whether the situation became explosive or not depended on the military.
On September 18, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was formed following another bloody crackdown. A curfew was imposed and gatherings of more than five people were declared illegal. However, the junta promised that it would only stay in power until multi-party elections could be held.
Min Ko Naing did not dare show himself in public for several months. Then, in December 1988, Daw Khin Kyi, the mother of Aung San Suu Kyi, passed away and about 200,000 people gathered to pay their last respects. Despite the dignified solemnity of the occasion, military trucks appeared on the Prome Road to block the procession following Daw Khin Kyi’s coffin. Then Min Ko Naing suddenly appeared in the middle of the crowd, and appealed to the troops to let the people pass. Finally, the troops withdrew.
Min Ko Naing’s last public speech was given exactly one year after his first, on March 16, 1989. Thousands had gathered in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to mark the first anniversary of the student massacre that ignited nationwide protests. Min Ko Naing’s speech criticized Ne Win and the junta for that massacre and all the others that were to follow in 1988.
On March 23, 1989, Min Ko Naing was arrested, amidst tightened security throughout Rangoon in anticipation of protests to mark Armed Forces Day on March 27. It was an important signal to other leaders that nobody was safe from arrest and imprisonment. Within days, Aung San Suu Kyi and several others were also arrested.
Min Ko Naing was charged under section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for having delivered anti-government speeches and agitating unrest. For this, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in solitary confinement. While other political prisoners have received amnesties and are allowed to stay in group cells and receive regular family visits, Min Ko Naing has been kept isolated and without any reduction of his sentence.
There are doubts about how well Min Ko Naing has been holding up in prison. There have been confirmed reports of torture, but according to UN Human Rights Investigator Yozo Yokota, who was permitted to meet Min Ko Naing in 1995 after repeated requests, the student leader was nervous and thin but otherwise in good health. An earlier visit by US congressman Bill Richardson, in February 1994, was also encouraging. Through the congressman, he conveyed a simple message to his friends: "Don’t give up." A year later, fellow prisoner Win Htein, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal assistant, reported when he was released that Min Ko Naing’s fighting spirit was still strong.
More recent reports have stated that he is suffering from a gastric ulcer. His friends are also increasingly concerned that his incredibly long period of solitary confinement must be taking a toll on his state of mind.
While Min Ko Naing’s fate is uncertain, and his destiny as a "conqueror of kings" remains unfulfilled, his importance as an inspiration to others who continue the fight to bring democracy to Burma is beyond doubt.
In a rare interview with Asiaweek magazine in 1988, Min Ko Naing said: "I’ll never die. Physically I might be dead, but many more Min Ko Naings will appear to take my place. As you know, Min Ko Naing can only conquer a bad king. If the ruler is good, we will carry him on our shoulders."
Based on reports by The Nation, Asiaweek and ABSDF Information Services.