Home of the free: the Burmese family that democracy brought back together

When Burmese pro-democracy protesters Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein were jailed for the second time, their daughter had only just been born. Five years on they have been released to start family life again

During a moment of panic on the streets of Rangoon in 1988, 17 year-old Kyaw Min Yu caught a glimpse of his future wife, Nilar Thein. She was aiming a kick at an army officer's face and it was the last time he would see her for 16 years.

Soon after that moment on the streets of Rangoon, they were arrested for their roles in the pro-democracy uprisings that saw thousands of protesters killed.

As physics students in the now-abandoned Rangoon University, "Ko Jimmy" (as Kyaw Min Yu is better known) and Nilar Thein were leaders of the "88 Generation Students" movement – protesting the legitimacy of Burma's one-party state, headed by the military dictator General Ne Win.

They would become two of Burma's best-known political prisoners, between them serving a total of 32 years – many of these years spent in solitary confinement in windowless cells.

It was the image of Nilar Thein, fighting for what she believed in that stayed with Ko Jimmy during the many years he spent alone. But he admits that when he was released in 2005, he could no longer remember what she looked like. "She was brave and strong," he says. "I remembered her for that. But mostly I could only think of myself... just to survive. Those years were very hard."

The couple finally married in 2006 and had a baby daughter a year later, on the eve of Burma's Saffron Revolution. Soon after, they were arrested again for taking part in protests sparked by a government-ordered hike in fuel prices, and their status as two key opposition leaders saw both of them sentenced to 63 years in jail.

Speaking from a balcony overlooking a street where there were running battles between students and soldiers in 1988, Ko Jimmy says he could only let Nilar Thein know that he was thinking of her through official correspondence during their first prison sentences.

As head of the student group, he was able to learn that Nilar Thein had become ill with hypertension and could put in official requests to hear about her condition. "She told me later she knew I was looking out for her," he says.

Despite being in love for 24 years, the couple has spent less than three of those together.

Now, Ko Jimmy kneels with Nilar Thein next to a table that is laid with offerings as Buddhist monks lead the family through a ceremony which is in preparation for their daughter Nay Kyi Minn Yu's fifth birthday. After a spate of political reforms led by Burma's current President Thein Sein, the couple was released in January, along with hundreds of other political prisoners.

This is the first birthday they have been able to share with their daughter, who for the first four years of her life only saw her parents in jail, one at a time and flanked by police officers. At the birthday celebration, the family sits cross-legged on the floor of a small apartment in northern Rangoon, praying opposite a line of ochre-clad monks who had filed into the crumbling apartment block to accept some offerings of bananas, rice, curry and water early that morning.

Nay Kyi Minn Yu still sleeps with her grandparents, who took care of her in her parents' absence, even though the couple now has an apartment in the same building, four floors up. "She still loves them more than us," Ko Jimmy says. "We hope we can change that."

Wearing pink eye shadow, Nay Kyi Minn Yu picks her way through 11 men who sit cross-legged on the floor at her party. With a degree of pride, the men announce that 10 of them were at one time political prisoners.

"The release of the prisoners doesn't just represent our own freedom, it represents the freedom of our country," Nilar Thein says. "It is the result of negotiations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government. That's a great step towards the process of reconciliation. We are happy that our family has been reunited. I think after 23 years of suffering, sacrifice and blood, we are beginning to see change in our country. But there are so many things left to do."

Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein know they are lucky to be home now. Activists estimate that while the Burmese authorities claim to have set free all political prisoners, anywhere between 300 to 800 are believed to remain in jail. Burma has been torn by some of the world's longest-running conflicts, and parts of the country have been gripped by virtually incessant war since independence in 1948.

Although earlier this year the government officially stopped fighting several armed ethnic groups on the Thai-Burma border, Burma's armed forces are currently engaged in a huge offensive against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in Kachin and in neighbouring Shan states along the border with China. Since their release from prisons across the country last January, many of the members of the "88 Generation Students" group have been focusing on peace-building and have toured the country to spread their message.

Half-way through the birthday party, the men file off to watch the news. Footage appears of a delegation of "88 Generation Students" who recently visited Loikaw, the capital of Kayan State, famed for its Padaung "giraffe women".

Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy were members of the delegation present at the Kayan National Day celebration in a dusty, mountainside field. The family cheers excitedly when they glimpse both of them marching behind a traditionally dressed ethnic group.

For members of the "88 Generation Students", who have come to exemplify Burma's long struggle for democracy, years spent in jail have become badges of honour, discussed frankly, with an eye towards the future. Those who were more careful or thought of trying to escape jail have sometimes been alienated from their peers.

"We summed up the situation and prayed that our daughter would understand her parents if anything happened to us," Nilar Thein says. Ko Jimmy's father, who worked as an official in the ruling government party, had warned him of the dangers of being part of a student democracy movement.

"I said, 'you will likely lose your place at university, you could get arrested, or even killed'. But I never told them they couldn't go ahead with their actions," he says. He and his wife looked after Nay Kyi Minn Yu when the couple was in prison. "Every day she asked us why it had happened, where her parents were," he says. Her uncles would tell Nay Kyi Minn Yu that her parents were "in training", but she says she knew they were in jail.

Ko Jimmy thinks of the years he lost as a task he completed willingly, like a sort of payment. "As a human being I wanted to be a good husband and a good father," he says. "But I also wanted to be a prisoner of conscience, so I had to balance those two feelings. I missed my family terribly as a human being, but I had to stand steadfast as a prisoner of conscience."

For now, the family are together. But the impression you gain here is that for every generation present in this building, democracy is still as important as Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy's daughter.

Road to democracy

November 2010

Burma holds first elections for 20 years, but the opposition alleges huge fraud. A week later, Aung San Suu Kyi is freed from house arrest.

March 2011

Thein Sein is sworn in as president of a nominally civilian government and the transfer of powers to the new government is complete.

January 2012

Hundreds of prisoners are released – among them veterans of the 1988 student protest movement.

April 2012

Contesting an election for the first time since 1990, the opposition NLD wins 43 of 45 seats in by-elections.

Richard Hall

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