NAING Ko Ko spent six years in solitary confinement because he believed in democracy. Now things are starting to change just a little in his native Burma and he feels optimistic for the future.
But from 1992, as a 21-year-old political prisoner in Rangoon's notoriously cruel Insein prison, Naing Ko Ko knew his future would depend on being able to speak English. After months of torture and interrogation, he risked further punishment and time in solitary by hiding English dictionaries and grammar books in holes in the wall and floor of his cell. But he mastered the language and now, at 42, speaks it well.
Naing Ko Ko is in Lismore this week, enjoying the hospitality of Page MP Janelle Saffin, who before she became a member of the Australian Parliament, was a frequent visitor to Burma and personal friend of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He met Ms Saffin in 1998 and was inspired by a seminar about Australian participatory democracy that she held for Burmese people in exile on the Thai border.
"Janelle is known in Burma as the 'Mother of Burma in Australia'," Naing Ko Ko told The Echo.
"She worked with us, teaching us law, and Australian federalism and constitutional democracy and how it works. She did it all on her own money with no support from anyone."
Naing Ko Ko said he was a schoolboy of 16 when he started taking part in student demonstrations for democracy and human rights, as other students were being shot and killed by the military regime.
"I met Aung San Suu Kyi in August, 1988 when I was 17," he said. "She gave a speech to millions of people that inspired me and my friends to get involved in the democracy and human rights movement.
"Then we called ourselves 'freedom fighters for democracy'. I was arrested in 1992 and tortured mentally and physically before being sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment with hard labour in January 1993.
"I spent 18 months in the famous Insein prison in a military dog cell.
"Every prisoner was treated like a dog by prison authorities for illegally studying English."
He spent the next five years in Taung Oo prison, 180 miles from Rangoon.
Asked how he had coped with being in solitary confinement for so long, he replied: "Meditation, and physical activity.
"I studied at night and slept during the day, hiding the grammar books my friends had smuggled into the prison."
After his early release from prison, Naing Ko Ko worked on the Thai-Burma border in the areas of democracy, human rights, national reconciliation and economic development.
His advocacy work with exiled Burmese political coalitions has since taken him all over the world to meet with key global decision makers.
"We can't be freedom fighters for ever," he said. "The political and economic atmosphere is changing and we are peace activists now.
"The peace movement has to accept reality as it is now. For example, we never, ever talk about revenge. We talk about forgiveness and working together."
He kept up a friendship with Aung San Suu Kyi, and when she was released from house arrest, spoke to her on the phone before US President Obama called her.
Naing Ko Ko is spending a couple of weeks with Ms Saffin as an intern during his summer break from his studies for a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Queensland. Naing Ko Ko is also on a Rotary Peace Fellowship at the Rotary Centre for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution, also at Queensland Uni.
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