News of Nelson Mandela’s release dominated the radio broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America on Feb. 11, 1990. I felt I understood why he had resisted so long, because in Burma, as in South Africa at the time Mr. Mandela was in jail, the majority of people were struggling to make their voices heard. Within three months, the military junta would refuse to recognize the results of our national election — and I would be locked up in Rangoon’s Insein Prison for leading a demonstration.
Released in 1993, I was sent to prison again in 1994. It was during my second sentence that I managed to read a magazine article describing Mr. Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Single pages of this article were smuggled into the prison over a period of weeks, and I pieced them together from tightly folded scraps. But the story was worth the trouble: Mr. Mandela’s refusal to give up his principles, during more than 27 years in jail, was an inspiration to me and all the other political activists in Insein. “Nelson Mandela is the black power from South Africa, he can overcome 27 years of darkness,” went the refrain of a song that one of my fellow prisoners composed, a song we used to sing to keep up our spirits.
Mr. Mandela wrote that time drags in prison only if you are idle; if you organize, study and work, prison life can be very busy. But his situation seemed in some ways better than mine. He could study openly, whereas my friends and I could do so only clandestinely. We pleaded with the guards to allow it, but they told us we had to renounce political resistance first.
The Burmese authorities repeatedly pressured me to cooperate with them. But I held firm. In 1999, one year after my second prison term was finished, I escaped to Thailand — and right away got a copy of “Long Walk to Freedom.” “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs,” Mr. Mandela wrote. “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve.”
For the Burmese people, the long walk toward a free society is not finished, but we are walking in the right direction, and we will arrive one day.
Ko Bo Kyi,who spent nearly eight years in prison in Burma before escaping to Thailand and co-founding the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.