YANGON – Their youthful defiance of a military government that locked them up for years turned the “88 Generation” student activists into national heroes. As the country reforms, many wonder if it will also make them politicians.
Freed along with scores of other political prisoners in January, it did not take long for the movement’s leader Min Ko Naing and his deputy Ko Ko Gyi to regain their fighting spirit.
“I want to change society,” Ko Ko Gyi said in the group’s small dilapidated Yangon headquarters, which plays daily host to a steady stream of monks, activists and foreign diplomats.
But it is not – so far – a political organisation, concentrating instead on grassroots activity while other veterans of the democracy movement, most notably Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, concentrate on their new parliamentary roles.
“We deeply consider what we should do for the future. Some of the leaders are actively engaged in politics and some remain in social work. We are trying to cooperate with political parties and social organisations,” Ko Ko Gyi said.
The former protest leaders – whose 1988 mass demonstrations were the greatest test of the military’s stranglehold on Myanmar – remain determined to “perform our duty”, he said, although it remains to be seen exactly what their role might be.
As students two decades ago, the 88 Generation figures raised a huge movement against the military, with protests spreading from major universities to the streets of Yangon and then the whole country.
Reviled strongman Ne Win stepped down after several months of demonstrations, but the army kept its grip on the country and a huge August rally was crushed in a bloody crackdown that left at least 3000 people dead.
Despite their failure to topple the junta, the rallies planted the seeds of political struggle in the minds of a generation.
They also gave rise to the country’s most famous dissidents, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was swept up in the protests during a family visit to Myanmar from her home in Britain and soon became a prominent activist at the helm of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Years later, dozens of heavyweights of the 80s remain at the forefront of the democracy movement.
But the context has changed dramatically.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, having supported her party’s boycott of controversial 2010 polls, decided to participate in a landmark April by-election that saw her easily win a seat in parliament.
She is now setting her sights firmly on a 2015 general election that could bring the biggest transformation in the country’s political landscape since the army seized power half a century ago.
The vote, which many expect to herald an NLD victory, may be the first in Myanmar to be truly labelled democratic.
Will the 88 Generation – whose leader Min Ko Naing is one of the most popular activists in Myanmar along with the more internationally renowned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – contest the vote and accept the new order?
“It is not yet decided,” Ko Ko Gyi said. “It would have a huge impact, whatever we decide.”
Opinion is split among democracy groups, activists and commentators over the role these extremely influential people can play.
Some advocate a continued presence outside the political sphere, so that the group can continue to champion causes on the ground, such as worker and student rights.
But for other observers, their entry into the political mainstream is just a matter of time.
“Generation 88 is going to be a political party,” said U Zaw Thet Htwe, a former journalist also released in January, adding that the only question is whether they will form their own party or integrate with the NLD.
“It depends on the discussions between them,” he said, hinting at some political disagreements between the Generation 88 and NLD that would have to be resolved.
Ko Ko Gyi refused to be drawn on the speculation.
“If anyone wants to join politics, there are only two ways, to join old parties or to create a new one,” he said, adding that the group needed time to gauge the workings of parliament, as well as the trajectory of the NLD.
“Aung San Suu Kyi is not an ordinary MP. She can speak out more than any other MP,” he said.
But the NLD is still a relatively small force in the legislature, without sufficient numbers to really affect policy.
The opposition will have to put forward a thousand candidates for the national elections in three years’ time. Whether the democratic old guard will join forces to contest the poll together has yet to be decided.
“We need to take our time,” said Ko Ko Gyi.– AFP