“Don’t worry, don’t worry daughter, everything will be fine, change is coming soon.”
Tomorrow is an important day. William Hague, the UK’s foreign secretary, may not be aware of the date’s significance, but August 8 should be etched into his memory, as it is mine.
Tomorrow is my father’s day. When I was very young, I was taught that my daddy was a man in a photograph, and later I was shown he was the man in the prison, where we visited him and where I touched his fingers through iron bars and pretended that the armed guards surrounded him to protect him. Now I know him to be a hero of Burma, and my greatest inspiration.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the start of a peaceful protest movement in Burma, protests that would end in ongoing tragedy, bloodshed and decades of global inaction. On 8 August 1988, my father, Ko Mya Aye, led thousands of students on to the streets of Rangoon as part of a wave of a million people, who gathered to peacefully protest against the ruling military junta. The protests were put down by the most brutal means, and organisers such as my father were beaten, tortured and jailed.
These protests were repeated in 2007 by defiant individuals who desired democracy so fiercely that they were prepared to risk their liberty and lives a second time. Individuals such as my father who, as part of the iconic Generation 88 students group he co-founded, again helped orchestrate mass protests on the very same streets of Rangoon, this time as part of the so-called “saffron revolution“.
Both times the events offered hope to the long-suffering people of my homeland. Both would end with the Burmese authorities ruthlessly quashing dissent. By the end of the summer of 1988, more than 3,000 peaceful protestors had been killed.
In 1988, my father was arrested and given an eight-year jail sentence. In 2007, his sentence was 65 years. Without a regime change, I will never see him again.
Sadly, the human rights situation in Burma remains as grim now as it has ever been. It is illegal for more than five people to gather together to talk about politics, the internet and the media are severely restricted, torture is routine and there are currently 2,200 political prisoners.
Yet countries such as India and China continue to cosy up to the Burmese authorities in an attempt to tap into Burma’s natural resources. British politicians have been at the vanguard of calling for change, but they need to go the extra mile. William Hague needs to build a global consensus that exposes Burma’s human rights violations – especially now, with elections planned for the end of the year. And that means working hard to persuade the likes of India and China to change their tune. After all, they ultimately risk shooting themselves in the foot: Burma’s military junta cannot go on for ever, and any new government is unlikely to forget who helped prop the junta up. My father will not, and nor will I.
I left Burma in 2006 to study at university. From the moment I arrived in the UK, I talked to various media outlets about my father and his activities. It did not go unnoticed back home. The Burmese authorities went to my parent’s home and questioned my father about me, and it was then that my father told me it was not safe to come back. He said he did not want to lose his daughter.
I applied for asylum in the UK in April 2007. Just a few months later, the saffron protests started.
I remember speaking to my father over the phone on August 21. I told him how proud of him I was to see such big demonstrations and the international attention they were receiving, and I begged him to be careful. He said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry daughter, everything will be fine, change is coming soon.” He was full of hope.
He was arrested later that night. Despite our concerns for his safety, we expected him to get sentenced to 20 years at the most. Sixty-five years is a death sentence.
I am 21 now and my father remains my biggest inspiration. As long as I am in the UK, I can be his words. I just want to make sure the politicians are listening.
Waihnin Pwint Thon, the daughter of Ko Mya Aye, one of the Generation 88 student leaders who is currently serving a 65-year jail sentence in Burma for his part in the 2007 protests.