One cannot but feel privileged and awed to meet three of Burma's “88 Generation” student uprising leaders: Min Ko Naing who has spent most of the years since 1988 uprising jailed by the Burmese military dictatorship for his opposition activities; Ko Jimmy, who spent 20 years as a political prisoner and who was recently thrown back into what he wryly describes as “our second home” for protesting against fuel price hikes; and Ko Ko Gyi who spent 17 years in prison for opposing the military regime.
After enduring cruel torture and many years in jail, these three remain leading democracy activists in Burma today. They fielded a few questions at a reception at NSW Parliament by Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker.
The three were leaders of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions that was formed after the military regime massacred student protesters in March 1988 and led the famous 8-8-88 general strike in August that year.
Min Ko Naing was once described by the New York Times as as Burma's “most influential opposition figure after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”. But he and other 88 Generation leaders have opted to stay out of parliamentary politics to “build up the capacity of civil society” in their country.
Min Ko Naing insists they remain politically independent of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), but work closely with it “like two brothers”.
While he appreciated the power for the democratic movement that came with the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, he said that Burma needs a “team leadership” not just individual leaders.
He said: “The 88 Generation has made a joint statement with the NLD on the urgency of constitutional reform and this was more important that the upcoming 2015 elections.
“We need constitutional change to have a free and fair election. 2015 is not our goal, it is just a milestone we have to pass.
“Democracy is not only about having an election every five years, it is about organising and mobilising the people in between elections too.”
The main challenge now was “capacity building for the democracy movement”.
The official NGOs were not doing a very effective job of advocating for the poor and powerless in Burma.
Clearly, the 88 Generation leaders are also wary of the limited democratic concessions that the military regime has made more recently.
Min Ko Naing warned against Western governments funding training programs for former military officials in Burma, saying: “These people have never accepted or worked in a democratic way. They only know the military way.”
Politics in Burma today still involved “using carrot and stick tactics” with the still entrenched military, he added.
Ko Jimmy said that the 88 Generation was focusing on building up the political confidence of the people before next year's elections while continuing to scrutinise the military regime.
“There are still 60 political prisoners locked up and only 20 of them have been brought before the courts. The rest are just detained without charge or trial.
“The people don't know much about parliament and elections and they are worried about getting involved in political activity. So we have to start organising with simple things like blood donation groups or local library groups.”
The group embarked on such basic organising projects after the arrest of several of their leaders in 2007 and have had success in building up people's confidence to organise in this way, he added.
“Women are playing a big role in the political revival in Burma and one of them is my wife who was a political prisoner for 17 years.”
It soon became clear when the discussion turned to the conflicts with the Muslim minority communities in the west of Burma that this remains a “controversial issue” (as Min Ko Naing described it) with the 88 Generation leaders.
He insisted that this was a “conflict within our community”, but he added that it involved “some citizens, some refugees and some illegal migrants”.
“The ethnic issue and democracy cannot be separated and both have to be addressed,” he said.
Ko Jimmy took issue with the term “Rohynga”, which he said “had never been heard of until recently” and is being used by people who “we see as Bengali refugees and illegal migrants”.
There was not enough time to explore this issue further and so these comments may not adequately express the full perspective of the 88 Generation to the conflict with the Muslim minority community in Burma.