Generation 88 activists back Myanmar's reform path

January 21, 2012 - 9:45 AM
Myanmar

Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, speaks during a press conference at a shopping mall on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. The nearly legendary student leader from Myanmar's failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising was freed on Jan. 13 as part of a presidential pardon for 651 detainees. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Prominent student activists recently released from prison in Myanmar said Saturday they will work with political reformers and support pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in upcoming by-elections.

Min Ko Naing, a top member of the 88 Generation Students Group, said it would always side with those who strive for "fairness, freedom and equality" and join hands with supporters of President Thein Sein's reforms.

The group's name refers to a failed democracy uprising in 1988 that resulted in long prison terms for the activists. They were at the cutting edge of that rebellion and are widely admired for their perseverance and dedication despite the threat of re-arrest always hanging over them.

At least four 88 Generation members spoke at the news conference, attended by about 500 people, including many of their supporters. It was their first joint public appearance since being released from prison on Jan. 13.

Thein Sein took office last year as chief executive of a military-backed but elected government after two decades of military repression made Myanmar a pariah state. Reforms he has initiated include starting a dialogue with Suu Kyi, legalizing labor unions and signing a cease-fire agreement in a long-running campaign against Karen insurgents.

An 88 Generation statement said the group "will participate to the fullest extent with the government led by the President, the parliament, military, political parties and ethnic minority groups for the emergence of democracy, peace and development."

"There are those who want to carry out reforms and those who are averse to reforms. We promise that the 88 Generation Students will side with the reformists," said Min Ko Naing.

Suu Kyi has expressed cautious optimism in the reform movement and lent her support by having her National League for Democracy reregister as a legal political party, and contest all 48 seats at stake in an April 1 by-election. The NLD had boycotted the November 2010 general election, saying it was conducted in an unfair and undemocratic manner.

Another Generation 88 member, Ko Ko Gyi, said the group would not run in the upcoming polls but "will support ... Aung San Suu Kyi who has made a risky and practical choice in order to achieve national reconciliation."

Some critics fear the military is using Suu Kyi as window-dressing to promote Myanmar as democratic while the countries constitution ensures army dominance over politics. For more than two decades, the military had kept the upper hand despite Suu Kyi's nonviolent resistance, armed conflict with ethnic minority groups, and political and economic sanctions by Western nations.

Another Generation 88 member, Mya Aye said that many political prisoners remain in prison.

"The fact is that the government's denial to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners amounts to ignoring the reality," he said.

After the initial euphoria over this month's release of about 500 political prisoners, it became evident that many convicts who are political detainees by most definitions remain behind bars because they were convicted of crimes not regarded by the government as political offenses.

The number of those still held is nearly impossible to determine because of the various crimes under which they are held and the limited information available about the detainees.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), based in neighboring Thailand, welcomed the releases, but pointed out that they are conditional and can be withdrawn, putting practical limits on those freed.