What it's like to go to jail for your beliefs … and forgive your captors

From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian. In this issue, we kick off 2016 with first-person accounts of Rotary members’ most harrowing and heartfelt personal experiences. Pick up the issue to explore more stories.

Naing Ko Ko

Rotary Peace Fellow

University of Queensland, Australia, 2012-13

In 1988, when I was 16, I began to protest with other students for democracy, human rights, and social justice in my home country of Burma, now called Myanmar. Four years later, I was arrested and tortured for two months in an interrogation camp. I was shackled and beaten. I was not allowed to sleep. They put a cloth over my eyes and a hood over my head, so I could not tell the day from the night. They asked me the same questions over and over. It was quite similar to George Orwell’s 1984. After this, I was sent to a special court. I was given no lawyer, just sent directly to prison.

They did not want us to learn in prison, but I had a dream to go and study overseas when I was released. I convinced a guard to smuggle books to me. I received a dictionary to learn English and books on economics and philosophy. I dug a hole in the wall of my cell and hid the books and covered the hole with an image of the Buddha. I studied English at night and in the day I slept.

But one day, I got sleepy and didn’t hide the books, and they were discovered. After that, I was moved to a cell where they kept the dogs. They put me in shackles again and made me behave as if I were a dog. If they called my name, “Naing Ko Ko!” I had to respond, “Woof! Woof!” When the guards came, I had to kneel down and press my face to the floor and not look at their face. They put the food on the ground and I had to eat just with my mouth, like a dog. With water it was this way, too.

At this time, I realized that I would die in the prison if I remained fighting and stubborn. I knew I had to accept the reality and control my mind or I would go crazy in that place. There were others who committed suicide. They smashed their heads against the wall. I didn’t want to be defeated in this way. I did not want to die in front of inhuman wardens.

But I had also to remember that the guards were not educated people. They were part of a system. So I started to talk with them. I said, “Come on. We are just students. We are not murderers or criminals. We only want the right to learn and to make a democracy.” I tried to explain as much as I could, from reading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Many did not respond at all. But I kept talking. I made my voice loud. After many times talking, some prison guards replied to me. We became familiar and finally like close friends.

After six years and eight months, I was released. I am now fulfilling my dream of studying overseas at Australian National University in Canberra. Of all the prisoners who were arrested in the protests, I think I am the only one who is getting a Ph.D.

More than 3,000 people died during the democracy protests of 1988. Thousands more went to prison like me. We became known as the “88 Generation” because we called for democracy and human rights.

We cannot forget what happened in places like the dog cell. But we must forgive the guards and wardens or we cannot move forward. You cannot make a democracy with rage in your heart. There must be forgiveness. It is important to talk about justice. But revenge and justice are not the same.

For me, the best revenge is to become someone who can work to change my country systematically. I want to return to Myanmar to become a chief policy adviser. I want to work on anti-corruption and anti-poverty programs and social justice, and most of all the peacemaking process. I want the interrogation camp where I was tortured to become a museum so we never forget this part of our history and never repeat it.

Are you interested in working for peace and conflict resolution? Find out how to become a Rotary Peace Fellow or support the Rotary Peace Centers at www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships.

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