The Book Club: The Butterfly That Pollinates Burma’s Future
Below is the author’s personal account of a student book club in Rangoon, where she taught student union leaders who would later be imprisoned for their political views. Her account also details their January 13 release from prison under a general amnesty and a reunion with of some of the club’s members via telephone.
This past January 12 put me on edge. My restlessness had nothing to do with my birthday, or its falling on Friday the 13th. Instead it had everything to do with the fate of my friends in Burma. That evening the Burmese diaspora had been stirred up by some news: Thein Sein’s government had just declared an amnesty regarding the release of 651 prisoners under the Criminal Procedure Act, effective January 13. It was the new Burmese government’s fourth large-scale clemency in eight months.
As Rangoon is twelve hours ahead of Pittsburgh, I decided to wait for the unbolting of Burma’s prison doors at my desk, starting at 7 p.m. It was a tense wait. How many prisoners of conscience would be released this time? Who would they be? Burmese social networking pages were awash with predictions and rumors. Our status messages reflected the mood of the day. The little green lights on my address book said the whole Burmese community I know in the West was online and sleepless that night—like myself.
The moment of revelation was worth all the wait and nervousness. Soon my heroic friends, the key dissidents of the ’88 Generation Students, who must have spent more than half of their lives in some of the world’s worst prisons, were on their way home. My little brothers and sisters, who had enthusiastically followed Burmese politics in a Rangoon book club, ended up in the interrogation centers, and were later imprisoned for their awareness, were freed too. I smiled countless smiles in joyful tears. The sense of happiness that has eluded me since my teenage days came back that evening. The amnesty was the grandest birthday gift I had ever received, from somewhere I least expected.
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Those little bibliophiles! I met them for the first time in 2007 in Rangoon. They were very active. They were into the notion of truth. They were into humanitarianism. They were into philanthropy. They were youths whose thirst for knowledge in a hermit kingdom like Burma was manifested in their questions during my Saturday book club at the American Centre. For the meetings we set a topic for each session—literary, political or social—and gave ourselves a week to read up. But our discussions were not limited to the exchange of views and ideas from books and magazines; often we also shared our life experiences and aspirations.
The aim of the club was to encourage the members to pursue their interests in civil society with the hope that the strength of knowledge drawn from books and discussions would help guide them. Usually we searched for hidden messages in cryptic works by writers who managed to fool the censors. We tried to elucidate their ideas. We tried to dig for deeper meanings. We tried to apply their writing to the social and political setting of the day. Our weekly gatherings were always anticipated.
From time to time, when some of the members’ houses were searched by the authorities or one of us had been picked up and questioned by the military intelligence during the week, our enjoyable meetings became tense, insecure, and anxious. In those days, any gathering of that sort was illegal in Burma. The fact that we were operating out of the American Center, under the premises of a Western country which had been a vocal critic of the regime, did not help our public image. Some of the kids were told to quit the club by their university professors who were only acting to please the regime. I was subject to a ten-hour interrogation and sugar-coated threats in an intelligence den as the leader of the pack.
Despite the surveillance, or perhaps exactly because of that, our objective of student involvement in civic society was met sooner than expected. Some of our members began to get involved in HIV/AIDS organizations, monastic education projects, and homes for orphans. We were also active as a group. We often visited Rangoon mental hospital, bringing much-needed supplies and encouragement to inpatients.
In August 2007 I had to leave my beloved club when I joined the International Writing Program at Iowa University. A month later, back home, thousands of monks took to the streets in what would be known as the Saffron Revolution. While scenes of sutra-chanting monks being beaten up and chased down by troops armed to the eyes shocked the world and made it question its conscience, our club members quickly became an integral part of the democracy movement. Sadly some of the leading members of the club were arrested during the military crackdown conducted in the three months following the uprising. Only a few of them managed to flee to neighboring Thailand. By the time I went back to Rangoon in December 2007, the regime had denied me any chance to see the bibliophiles—they had been sent to Insein prison, the worst prison in Burma, and one of the worst in the world. In early 2008, they were sent to different prisons in remote parts of the country.
* * * *
It took five years until I could hear their voices again. I dialed and waited. During the seconds when the satellite was busy reconnecting our worlds, my heart was pumping too much blood; it was literally pounding against my chest. A “Hello!” from Rangoon could cause goose bumps in Pittsburgh. By the time they realized it was me and shouted, “Sis!” my eyes welled up with tears.
For some youngsters who had just been through hell in jail, they did not sound dejected at all. In less than twenty-four hours after their release, they were back to doing what they had been doing before their arrest. They had held meetings. They had discussed how they could push on in politics. They had reaffirmed their commitment to the country. They had agreed to take responsibilities. They had grown even more spirited—even more courageous. They sounded more astute in their analysis of the country’s situation, more discerning in their outlooks on life.
The day was January 18. They were together. The young radicals whose network was cut apart by imprisonment were in the middle of a meeting to revamp the legendary All Burma Federation of Student Union (ABFSU).
In 1920 it was the student uprising against colonial education that gave birth to a new generation of nationalist leaders. The Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU), set up in 1931, expanded into the All Burma Student Union (ABSU) in 1936 during the second student uprising. Aung San, father of Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was its chair.
The ideological reservoir of the ABSU was the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club, which took after Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in London. The Nagani reached out to the populace by translating several political treatises, from Marx to John Strachey, into Burmese. Their proletarian strike in 1938, and as soon as Europe was on the brink of the Second World War, their call to arms under the Marxist banner “colonialism’s difficulty, freedom’s opportunity” were natural outcomes of their revolutionary fervor.
In 1951, three years after the country’s independence, the ABSU was renamed ABFSU. The 1962 military coup and the flattening of the ABFSU headquarters, “the fortress of democracy” on Rangoon University campus, did little to subdue student activism. The union continued to exist, albeit underground. During the 1988 nationwide uprising, under the leadership of Min Ko Naing, it reemerged as a most formidable force against the military regime.
Another military rule since 1988 had held Min Ko Naing and his comrades in different jails for an average of fifteen years. Their freedom in 2006 was short-lived. For their relentless civil disobedience campaigns, Min Ko Naing and thirteen other student leaders were thrown back to the cells in August 2007. It was then that the junior firebrands, who are now known as the 2007 Generation, sought to restore and renew the student union. Kyaw Ko Ko, a member of the book club, was elected to the chair.
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I talked to Kyaw Ko Ko on the phone. Arrested in March 2008, he was serving an eight-year term when he was released on January 13. He has resumed his chair of the ABFSU. He immediately recalls the book club: ‘‘I’ll never forget how we had to struggle against all odds to be able to run the book club. At that time, the authorities were too paranoid. We couldn’t discuss anything freely. We weren’t supposed to read even Animal Farm. Nor were we supposed to discuss it. No doubt our union was conceived there. The book club, to me was a butterfly that had carried the pollen from the second generation’s union to the third.’’
Another member, Phyo Phyo Aung, got four years under The Unlawful Association Act for her leading role in the 2007 union and her humanitarian activities to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Released from Moulmein prison in October 2011, she has become the first woman general secretary of the ABFSU.
‘‘Our political life began at the club. It gave us a chance to get to know students with different backgrounds and experiences. It also exposed us to senior political activists, writers, and intellectuals. Our discussions and exchanges at the club have put us on a very firm political footing. Before the club, we only had secondary experiences. The club is a very significant part of my life,” Phyo muses.
‘‘I was an ordinary student from ordinary quarters. It was the book club that raised me up politically and got me into politics,’’ Sithu Maung comes in with his appraisal of the club. He was sentenced to eleven and a half years since the Saffron Revolution and was also released on January 13.
Di Nyein Lin’s case may be special. He managed to evade arrest until October 2008. He was indicted on six charges and given fifteen and a half years. One of the charges was filed under the Unlawful Association Act, for setting up the book club. ‘‘I would like to urge the youth to join us in building a future Union of Burma,’’ was the first sentence he uttered at the prison door on his January 13 release. He is the deputy chair of the union.
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Under the new government, Burma has taken an interesting turn. Books that were banned over the past forty years by the previous regimes are out in the open now. Freedom of the press remains a far-fetched dream, but censorship has been substantially eased. Politics is no longer a taboo confined to clandestine book clubs. The government has relented to a public campaign against the construction of a Chinese hydroelectric power project that would choke the mighty Irrawaddy at her confluence. So far the most welcome goodwill gesture by the authorities has been the release of political prisoners on January 13.
Perhaps change is in the air. Perhaps change is inevitable. Still, we all have our reservations. Kyaw Ko Ko says, ‘‘We do not fear being sent back to jail. None of the governments in our lifetime have ever honored their word. We are worried that the current government will not meet our expectations if they go back on their pledge. This concern is not just mine, but shared by the people. To be honest, I cannot fully trust the current situation.’’
‘‘We heard that there are anti-reformist and regressive hardliners in the government. The door to the path we want to walk may be opening up, but I am afraid those hardliners will u-turn the country,’’ adds Sithu Maung.
‘‘I hope the current development is not a one-step-forward-two-steps-backward scenario where a repressive system will be resuscitated in the end,’’ Phyo Phyo Aung says.
I know their feelings. We may have seen some reassuring steps taken by the new government, yet they are nowhere near an all-embracing transition. The government has to do a lot more to convince the people that they mean democracy. They can free the rest of the political prisoners. They can end hostilities in ethnic areas. They can entrust freedom to the media. They can overhaul public health care, education, and transportation systems. They can fight corruption on all levels. They can come clean by getting really serious about the rule of law. Et cetera…
We are happy with the political thaw in our country, but most of us remain vigilant. The fact that the army constitutionally remains above the parliamentary system makes it almost impossible for us—who have lived under direct and indirect military rules since 1962—to be absolutely certain about the country’s future. Most of us have adopted a “wait and see” approach. But to wait and see does not mean sit idle and get complacent; waiting is important, but while we wait we must also do what we can to affect the change we want to see. This is exactly the attitude I see in the members of the book club that has bloomed into the new generation of the ABFSU.