Min Ko Naing is a leading democracy activist and former political prisoner. Imprisoned from 1988 until 2012, on his release he helped to found the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. The New York Times once described him as Myanmar's “most influential opposition figure after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”. His first love is art, especially writing and drawing.
My real name is Paw Oo Tun and I am from Mon State. I chose my pen name Min Ko Naing when I started writing. Min means ‘young man’ in Mon, while Naing is used for older men. I felt there was a generation missing between Min and Naing, so I chose Ko to bridge the gap. So my name represents three generations.
My grandparents only really spoke Mon. When Grandpa wanted to use Myanmar he had to think really hard. My parents are also both Mon but I was born in Yangon. I was brought up among Myanmar people, so I can’t speak Mon.
I grew up in the socialist era, surrounded by slogans. ‘Western culture’ was a word with huge impact. If you wore trousers you would be called ‘a street devil’. If you played the guitar you were ‘tainted by western culture’. But our rulers didn’t practise socialism themselves. They were a privileged class, and there was no safe place to talk about that.
I studied at the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT). There was a telephone booth in the middle of the campus which was the only place you could find freedom of expression. Things were posted there that the authorities dared not touch, and we used to go and read them.
It’s important to share our experiences. We humans are lucky to have language for this.
Saya Awpikye used to draw cartoons under the penname Cartoon Man Khe and post them. I followed his example and stuck my own cartoons and articles up at the Botahtaung campus. But mine would be gone after a while.
When I first started out on my political path I never expected it would last this long. Nor that it would be this rough. I always thought that by the time I was in my thirties I could go back to my writing. I write on a weekly basis now, mainly articles, poetry and comics for kids.
The ‘carrot and stick’ approach was ingrained during the socialist regime. But it wasn’t the hard-working people who were rewarded. The small rewards on offer went to people who obeyed orders. Those who dared to challenge the authorities were punished. Everyone lived in fear.
Everyone lived in ignorance too. They did not know their rights, nor how things are done in other countries. People like it so much when, for instance, they read how the son of another country’s prime minister was taken into custody because he was drunk and behaving in an anti-social manner. They are delighted to learn how fairly laws are enforced elsewhere.
One day I saw a bird get its foot cut off. It flew back to its branch. All the others made a lot of noise but the bird didn’t have the language to tell the others to avoid the same fate.
It’s important to share our experiences. We humans are lucky to have language for this. When I was in prison I was kept in solitary confinement, but there was a small hole in my cell. I saw how other inmates killed birds for food. Sometimes they only half-caught them and they were injured.
One day I saw a bird get its foot cut off. It flew back to its branch. All the others made a lot of noise but the bird didn’t have the language to tell the others to avoid the same fate. They kept coming from the same branch and lost their lives.
Under the former government, the arts hit rock bottom. High school leavers with good marks would study sciences while those with poor marks would study arts. Nobody wants to be considered unintelligent so every student opted for sciences, no matter where their real interests lay.
But there’s another reason the arts were downgraded. The government perceived artists and philosophers as a threat. They weren’t worried about doctors or engineers. It was the same with the law. If a child wanted to study law he would be asked if he wanted to make a living from other people’s suffering. That’s how judges and lawyers were defamed.
Once, a popular cartoonist called Saya Thawka drew cats and dogs playing golf. He gave them the mannerisms of our ruling class. Our head of state objected and it became illegal to draw talking animals. There was nothing the artist could do but kill them off. How could Myanmar art flourish in such an environment?
Art depends on the freedom to think critically. Children today learn everything by heart, even the questions! In our day, we created art by thinking outside the box, which often got us into trouble.
I told the cat, “Go that way, son, that way,” and off he would go. If he saw a guard, he would hide. He was our messenger for nine years.
We wanted so much to write in prison, but there was nothing to write with. Then Ko Zagana invented a way. You have to use the walls of the cell, which are coated with layers of whitewash.
Place a plastic sheet against the wall and write on the back of the sheet with a broken piece of reed from the mat or a small piece of bamboo. If you flick your fingers against the wall after that, small particles of whitewash will fall and make your writing legible.
But how to share what you wrote? The guards would be locked up themselves if they were caught carrying our writing. Other inmates didn’t dare. So I got an idea. I rolled up my plastic writing and used my cat as a messenger. Yes, we had cats. Fortunately, our cats did not trust strangers. They only allowed us long-term inmates to touch them. Not guards.
I made the roll tight and put it around the cat’s neck. My cat was quite furry so it was well hidden. I told the cat, “Go that way, son, that way,” and off he would go. If he saw a guard, he would hide. He was our messenger for nine years. When they transferred me to another prison I had to leave him behind.
It is a huge privilege for us to have access to the British Council and everything it makes available. But we have to remember the underprivileged. I hope the British Council will continue to create access for all levels of society.