Five hundred days in shackles and fetters in a Burmese prison

22 Dec

Five hundred days in shackles and fetters in a Burmese prison

by Daniel Opacki

In 1987 the Burmese junta devalued Burma’s currency causing a significant disruption in the lives of most Burmese people. Imagine waking up one morning to find out a great deal of your hard cash was worthless. That event instigated a small group of Botany students at Rangoon University to hold protest marches in 1987 that eventually sparked wider political protests leading to the 1988 uprising in Burma.

(Videos are posted below with Ko Ba talking about his life as a political prisoner in Burma’s notorious prisons for 12 years. He also talks about spending 500 days chained in shackles and fetters.)

 Ko Ba taking a break to call during our discussion

Ko Ba was the first protester in 1987 to take to the dark and silent streets in a residential area full of student dormitories to oppose the economic hardships ordinary Burmese people faced with losing much of their money. His original intention was not political, yet the protests led to wider politically motivated protesting from a variety of groups with different agendas that sparked a public political movement meant to take down Burma’s military dictatorship.

Ko Ba was eventually caught up in leading massive protests which at the time were like what we today call flash mobs. He was targeted and sought after, chased around Burma until he was finally captured and put into prison for several months. His second arrest led him to 12 years inside.

Ko Ba as a Botany student at Rangoon University in 1988

Ko Ba spent about 12 years in prison. During his second stay, he was sentenced to spend five-hundred days in shackles and fetters, and he defiantly asked for more each time his jailers thought he was broken man.

Ko Ba describes himself, then and now, as “politically colorless” meaning he did not join any political organization. At the time when the more famously recognized 1988 student leaders emerged he stepped aside as he was not interested in joining alliances.

Today Ko Ba is a peace advocate and frequently works on internal issues in Myanmar. He’s well known amongst top leaders across all spheres in Myanmar and is one of the most trusted persons in Myanmar. He is an advocate for his organization called Metta (peace and loving kindness).

I met Ko Ba through a trusted friend. Ko Ba rarely gets involved with foreigners mainly to talk about his life since he wants no special recognition. He was content with not being in the limelight once Daw Suu and the now famous 1988 Generation student leaders emerged as Burma’s opposition leader just before the 1988 uprising. During a period of two weeks in which I met with a person closely related to the June Affair and the 1988 Uprising, one day Ko Ba, who was my interpreter, opened up about his experience in prison. As we ran out of battery power, we filmed Ko Ba’ with a small camera. The video isn’t great, but Ko Ba makes up for our lack of preparedness with his pleasant personality and engaging storytelling.

Ko Ba during a walk retracing the steps of the very first protest that started a revolution

Today Ko Ba is happily married with several children. He still suffers a bit from some of the beatings he took in prison. He remains outside of politics by choice preferring to enjoy his quiet life with his family. He works in education and works on religious unity and peace building with groups and their religious interests.

Ko Ba with me and his old friends from the 1988 era
Ko Ba talks about being held for 500 days in shackles and fetters
Ko Ba explains how he created Burmese Morse Code and his other experiences while held for 12 years as a political prisoner

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