‘International Community Should Support the Ethnic People’: Former Political Prisoner – PART 2
3 November 2015
Copyright 2015 Burma Link
Chit Min Lay was 24 years old when he was arrested at his home and taken to an interrogation centre, following his participation in the 1996 and 1998 student demonstrations. Chit Min Lay spent six months in Insein Prison waiting for a trial, every morning hoping that would be the day he’d be freed. Those hopes were crushed when Chit Min Lay was sentenced to 31 years in prison. But even in the dreadful conditions, the young student learned to survive, largely through writing poems and reading books – in secret with other prisoners. Over the years, Chit Min Lay and other prisoners were frequently taunted with the promise of release, and Chit Min Lay did not believe the authorities when they said he would be released – he had already given up hope. Since Chit Min Lay was finally freed in 2012, he has taken part in numerous trainings, exchanges, and activities promoting human rights documentation, and now works with The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. Chit Min Lay also keeps advocating for ethnic and religious minority rights, and calls for the international community to focus their support towards Burma’s neglected and oppressed minority groups. For the forthcoming election his hopes are clear – for the democratic and ethnic forces to win.
Havent read Part 1?
Freedom: “‘I will be released!’”
I was [almost] the last one to be released from the Moulmein prison. Me and my friend Zaw Lwin, we lived together for a long time.
I was released, on 13th of January [in 2012] I was released. In the evening they said they will release all political prisoners tomorrow. BBC was already talking about the release of the prisoners. I was excited but not so excited. And afterwards, I could not sleep well, and after I closed the radio and I walked alone and I tried to speak with my friend in front of my cell, we also heard;
‘Tomorrow maybe they will release one of us. We don’t know who will be released tomorrow morning. If we are released together we will be happy.’
When the night time [came], high ranking officer came and they shouted, ‘Ko Chit!’ ‘Hey Ko Chit you will be released tomorrow!’ But I didn’t believe that, you know in prison we already heard before, ‘You will be released tomorrow.’ [But I was] a little bit excited, ‘Maybe someone will be released but who, we don’t know.’
But next morning the prison’s high ranking, high officer of the prison, came to our compound and met with us, ‘Congratulations.’ He shook our hands and [said] congratulations. And we were very happy. For us, we had lived [in Moulmein prison for] 13 years so we were very excited.
‘I will be released!’ And then after the senior officer said congratulations, [we were] very happy!
Outside world: “The first time I saw a cell phone”
Then at first I didn’t know maybe some media will interview me. Because I lived a long time in prison. I was one of the student activists from the 1996. I was thinking about my comment. And my friends, my old prison mates, the Mon leaders and NLD leaders, who were released much earlier than [me] from the Moulmein prison, they welcomed me, they welcomed us. We were very happy.
We went to a restaurant near the prison to have breakfast. And one NLD member already opened the radio and his cell phone, [it was] the first time I saw a cell phone. He opened the cell phone and he got all the information from his friend. I didn’t understand.
And then, while we are having breakfast [he said], ‘Your friend was released, many of our friends.’ And then [he said], ‘Min Ko Naing was released.’ I was shocked, shocked. I thought that they [would] never [release him], ‘Min Ko Naing couldn’t be released from the prison.’
Because this was the theory; if they release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing will be in prison. The authority released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011, and Min Ko Naing was already in prison. But I lost my duty for interviewing, thinking, ‘He is our leader, every media will interview him. I am not a popular activist, no one knows me.’
Back to Rangoon: “I didn’t know my home”
I went to Rangoon. I arrived in Rangoon, at 4 or 5 am very early. But I didn’t know my home, because my mother had moved to another place. Before I lived downtown. But after my father died, and after I was arrested, my mother chose a different place. I didn’t know [it]. But my Mon leader called, not my mother’s phone but near her, and I could speak with my mother and I tell that I will arrive home tomorrow. They were waiting.
When Chit Min Lay returned to Rangoon, he was greeted by a crown of nearly 100 people, including his family and his friends from university.
96 [generation students] also welcomed me. The next day they tried to contact me, and they said they want to celebrate for us. We were [almost] the last ones – not the last ones – one of 96 students was the last one. The last one was released six months after we were released. They wanted to celebrate and they invited me to come to Pansodan Street and they told me the name of the restaurant.
Pansodan is very easy to find from here [in Rangoon], but I didn’t know how to [get there]. I was waiting a long time at the bus station and then I took a taxi. I told him to go to Pansodan Street and I told him the name of the restaurant, but he couldn’t find the name of it. I did not find the place. My friend criticised me, ‘You lived a long time in downtown.’
Changed world: “I didn’t want to go to a public area”
[There were] many changes everywhere… I couldn’t find the way. Every township [in Rangoon] was the same, same, almost. In the 1990s we lived in wooden houses, now [it had] changed.
First time when I visited Hledan, I wanted to see my university. But I did not have a phone and I just went to Hledan Township and my plan was;
‘I will go to the university and I will see the university and I will walk inside of the university and then I will drink my favourite, I will drink tea from my favourite teashop.’.
But when I arrived, Hledan was very crowded, very crowded, and I got a headache. And then I didn’t want to go to university and I took a bus and went back to my home. I didn’t want to be in a crowded [place], I wanted to speak with my close friends, only my close friends. I didn’t want to go to a public area. But I was lucky because I had good friends, many 96-98 people celebrated every day, they celebrated. They invited me to some events.
And also after Min Ko Naing and many [others were released], they made a celebration and we met each other, talking. We could speak openly. Maybe not openly, but no one [from military intelligence] followed [me].
Getting involved with the 88 Generation: “We support the former political prisoners”
All 96 members didn’t want to join with the 88 leaders. But I had lived with some of 88 leaders in prison. They asked me, ‘You should join us’. [They said] I would benefit from their organisation. At the time their organisation [The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society] was very popular. But, because one of my 96 friends was inside of the prison, I didn’t want to decide yet, I did not want to join with them. If I joined, my 96 friends would criticise me.
I had already graduated from the university, but I wanted to learn and I wanted to promote my English skills. Then I tried to get a scholarship from the British Council, I applied, so I could learn a program for capacity building. After I applied I could start learning from the intermediate level PCB (Program for Capacity Building) class. I got a scholarship from the British Council.
[When] they teach, they invite all the activist students. They give this student application form for former political prisoners, and every prisoner who gets qualified for their program can learn freely. And after I learned the CBP, six months later I joined 88. My friend was released, after my friend was released from the prison, I joined 88.
First I worked for the farmer affairs. I visited many villages, not so far from Rangoon. At the time land grabbing was very [common]. Many people, many farmers who lost their land came to the 88 office. [They thought], ‘88 can help with everything,’ and farmers came to our office and shared about their land, and we collected all of their cases and applied these cases to the authority. But I wasn’t interested in this farmer case so then I changed to the educational sector.
First our educational sector was in the office. But then we changed it to a human resource centre. In the human resource centre we support the former political prisoners with some money and we give training. We invite former political prisoners and ethnic activists from the ethnic [groups].
Finding a passion: “I speak to establish a documentation centre [in Rangoon]”
Then my life changed … [For the] first time I got invitation from abroad, from Chiang Mai, from ND-Burma (Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma). Ko Han Gyi and ND-Burma, they invited some of the 88 members to learn documentation in Chiang Mai. At the time they couldn’t visit here, ND-Burma was illegal, still maybe illegal, the government doesn’t accept [them].
ND-Burma invited me to come to Chiang Mai and learn documentation. And the first time I was not interested, first time I was just very happy that I could visit abroad. I saw Thailand. I was not interested in the documentation. But next time Ko Han Gyi, and executive members of ND-Burma, gave an application – they wanted to select me to send to Cambodia for DC (documentation centre for Cambodia) camp – I wanted to learn. I knew a little bit about Khmer Rouge and, [I was] very interested.
The DC camp is very famous, they document about how many people died in the Khmer Rouge period. I lived one month in Cambodia and I learned documentation. And also they taught me genocide education. I learned a lot. And then after I learned in Cambodia, I changed. I wanted to establish here like a documentation [centre]. Then I tried to learn more and more and I tried to visit other conferences. I visited Indonesia for human rights. I was invited by a civil right organisation. Now I speak to establish a documentation centre [in Rangoon].
Now, last year I could learn memory and memorialisation course. I participated in a Bangkok conference for memory and memorialisation. I met with participants from Cambodia, Timor-Leste [East Timor], Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
I want to work for the memory and memorialisation documentation, something with human rights. I want to collect human rights violations. .
Student protests in March 2015: “Police beat them, they beat and arrested them”
This year, Chit Min Lay and other former student activists and political prisoners witnessed the voices of the new student generation yet again suppressed by violence and intimidation. Following a controversial National Education Law that was approved on 30 September 2014, students began calling for more democratic and decentralised education. On January 20, more than 100 students set out to march from Mandalay to Rangoon, and on March 4, they faced off against a riot police at Letpadaung, Bago Division. Six days later on March 10, police launched a violent and cold-blooded crackdown on the student protestors and their supporters, brutally assaulting students, monks, journalists, and everyone who was present, including ambulance workers. Dozens were injured and hundreds arrested, many of whom remain in prison. A support protest held in Rangoon was also violently cracked down and many protesters arrested.
They made the long March, from Mandalay to Rangoon. They had good relationship with the authority. They could discuss with the representatives from the government side and parliament side, and they could discuss in the parliament in Naypyidaw. But now, I don’t know. They demonstrated again, the government stopped [them], and did not allow [them] to come to Rangoon. Then they cracked down. [It happened] before they arrived in Rangoon, very near, in Letpadaung. In the Bago Township, Bago Division.
I was very angry for the government [about the] crackdown. The authority, before they cracked down, they declared that they are ready to arrest, [but they will] not use force. But, police beat them, they beat and arrested them.
Students from Rangoon, they made a demonstration to support them [the students in the long march]. I participated in Rangoon, [I was] involved in Rangoon, but not in the long march. Most of our 88 [members] also participated [in the support protest]. They were beaten at the city hall. One of my senior members from 88, Ma Nilar Thein and Ma Mie Mie Thein, they were beaten and arrested. [They were] released after two days. They stayed one night or two nights in prison.
2015 Election: “I worry for this religious tension”
I don’t know about the 2010 elections because I was in prison. In 2012 [by-elections] I was very happy because NLD won. At the time I didn’t like [it], I was angry that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi participated in the election; that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi decided to [run]. Because we lost our side. She is a leader, [but] she decided [to run]. I was [angry], but after they won landslide in 2012 we were happy.
For 2015, we will support the democratic forces. Not only the NLD; we will support the ethnic leaders, and ethnic parties. [But about the] election, I’m a little bit worried… I worry for the religious [minorities], now that they rectified the marriage law. [They rectified] the marriage law and the nationalist monks, they’re happy now. And they can make some problems with the Muslims and the Bamar. This is a problem.
I worry for this religious tension. NLD also they did not choose Muslim MPs. They are afraid, that’s so crazy. So no one wants to stand [up for Muslims], don’t want to support the Muslim activists, and the nationalist monks are very proud.
Islam is the second largest religion in Burma, but Muslims are often discriminated against by the Buddhist majority. In July 2015 the government approved a highly controversial marriage law pushed forward by nationalist monks. The law requires Buddhist women and men of other faiths to register their intent to marry with local authorities, who will display a public notice of the engagements. Couples can marry only if there are no objections; if they violate the law, they could face imprisonment. The law is widely seen as highly discriminatory against Muslims and other religious minorities and restricting basic human freedoms. Muslims felt further discriminated against in September when the NLD caused a stir by failing to select any Muslim candidates.
I feel sad [about that]. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a democratic voice. I was already disappointed in [one of] her interview.
She is not a human rights defender, now she’s a politician. It’s crazy. She is our democratic icon. She should speak for the Kachins, for the Muslims. [But] she is silent. .
But I want to say that in 2010, even many activists and former political prisoners didn’t know how to monitor election. But some of my friends and other NGO members they monitored the 2012 elections. But now many people, they have knowledge from the international organisations and NGOs who give training for how [to monitor the election]. Some of my friends are working for the PACE [People’s Alliance for Credible Elections], they are the monitoring group for the election. They got many trainings from the international organisations. When they monitored in 2012, they had many problems they didn’t know [how to solve], they had little experience. But now they are very expert and very intelligent.
Many people [in Burma] don’t have, even I don’t have, any experience for voting. For monitoring now their skills are better. They can watch the government and the authorities. They have many networking groups in every state and division, election monitoring groups.
Meaning of democracy: “I needed to learn more”
Before 2010, if you were against the military, if you were a former political prisoner, you were our comrade. We were the democratic [force] we needed, we all wanted to get democracy. But later we had many ideologies, but they were not [always] democratic. We need to teach our friends about democracy.
Before I was released from prison, even [though] I read some books in prison I really didn’t know about the meaning of democracy. I learned the meaning of democracy from the British Council. When [we had] the first class in the CBP they asked, ‘What is the meaning of democracy?’ We were very angry you know, ‘We are the university students, we are the [ones], we fought, we sacrificed for the public.’
[But we were] just talking, ‘Democracy means that demo is the people.’ We knew only that, not the principles. We could explain only the meaning that demo is the public or people, then cracy means the governance. Then, they [British Council] taught us the principles and [about] public affairs and elections, [about] respecting each religion.
After they taught, [it was] not enough, I needed to learn more about democracy. But for other people, they think ‘democracy,’ they are always talking about democracy, but their behaviour is not like democracy. We need to teach them.
Changing the constitution is the key: ‘Ethnic People Have Lost Their Rights’
[For real change] first we need to change the constitution. In the constitution the military is still controlling everything. Ethnic people are very angry. If we can change the constitution, and if we can change the educational system. The main problem is the constitution; ethnic people have lost their rights in the constitution.
My opinion is that if we want to change the constitution, every party and everybody, political prisoners and every ethnic group, should try to focus on how to change the constitution. And they should have the democratic mind-set, they should learn democracy from the international examples.
[By] examples I mean that many people [in different countries] have had problems, [for example] in Cambodia. When I visited Cambodia I met with Cham Muslim people. Most of the Cham Muslim people supported the Hun Sen government. [They supported] because they got support from the government; they love each other, they live together, no problem. And also they have legal rights and they are legally accepted by the constitution.
So people should learn from the other programs, content and time, we can learn. Because we lived isolated for a long time, we couldn’t visit [anywhere]. We had to wait.
International community: “They should focus on supporting the ethnic people”
Sometimes I’m disappointed in the European governments, sometimes they just support the MPC (Myanmar Peace Centre). But I’m very happy that some NGO groups from Europe and America and also Indonesia and Philippines invite many people, many activists and scholars [to visit]. Most of the activists from here can visit [their countries].
This is important [because] we lived a long time in prison. Many Pilipino organisations invite the activists, America also invites. Europe should also invite the activists; Burmese activists, student activists or ethnic activists and they should teach about the ethnic rights or democratic [principles]. They should support the activists who are against the military law.
They should focus on supporting the ethnic people, they should support the minority people, religious minorities and ethnic minorities..
Sometimes [international leaders], [like] Obama also declared the Burmese transition, and they just focus on negotiating with the government. [But] the government is crazy you know, the military is still killing the people and also they’re still raping women in ethnic areas. So international community should support the ethnic minorities, ethnic [people].
The 8888 Memorial Hall: “I want to show it event by event”
To mark the 8-8-88 anniversary, The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society organisation opened the 8888 Memorial Hall on August 8, 2015, in the outskirts of Rangoon. The museum is set across two storeys and showcases photographs and newspaper articles from the uprising from across the country. The one and only printer used to print leaflets by the ABFSU (All Burma Federation of Student Unions) for the demonstrations is also on show. Although the museum has already faced some problems with the authorities, Chit Min Lay has many plans and dreams for developing the museum.
We founded [the museum] last month. Last two months ago this museum was just an apartment. No pictures, no photos, but they [88 members] changed it. I wasn’t here, I couldn’t care for the museum because I was in America at the time. But when I arrived they had opened and they had already prepared; they had already chosen the photos and some documents.
But I have some experience from other museums. You can say that in most museums, [they do] not only have photos. I want to show the real evidence. I want to show how many students were killed, and who is the perpetrator. This is my dream.
But now we have a little problem with the authority. After we opened the museum, some authority, as we call Special Branch they came here and asked for Ko Aung Maw and some  committee members… They asked some [questions], and we replied that we don’t need to get a permission. We will discuss it in a meeting, and if the museum committee decides to apply for registration, we will apply soon.
For me I want to show a museum that is not the, not rigid or something, [that has] flexibility. Flexibility means that I want to show event by event. Because if you don’t show, the young generation cannot understand [it]. Even Burmese people cannot understand what the 88 [demonstrators] wanted, or who started it, or who led it, or [everything].
I want to show it event by event. [It’s] very difficult to collect this evidence because 88 uprising happened around the country..
Dream and future: “We don’t know how to work together, how to collaborate. We have to learn”
For me my dreams is for the former political prisoners, for me as a former political prisoner, as a former student activist, that I want every activist or all people here to focus on how to develop our country. They should learn how to love each other and how to support the different communities. Different communities means that [we have] many different kinds of communities in here, many ethnic, many different religions, and they should learn how to support [each other].
Sometimes Burmese culture is crazy. There’s a joke you know; if they live with two birds, they have three groups; difficult [for people] to work together. First they have an idea for an organisation and then the next month or two months later they break or split.
I understand [that it’s because] we have lived under the military government very, very long time, from 1962 to now. We don’t know how to work together, how to collaborate. We have to learn more.
Today, Chit Min Lay keeps working for The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Organisation and he is also a founding member of the Myanmar Institute of Democracy. As well as dreaming of transforming The 8888 Memorial Hall, Chit Min Lay wants to open a documentation centre in Rangoon in order to document what happened to him and many of his friends who were arrested, and some of whom died in prison from malnutrition and torture.
Chit Min Lay’s story is based on an interview with Ariana Zarleen, a co-founder and current Program Director of Burma Link.
Copyright 2015 Burma Link
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