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Activist seeks freedom for Burma

ON A MISSION: Rotary Peace Fellow and former Burmese activist Naing Ko Ko is learning about Australian politics with Federal MP Janelle Saffin.
ON A MISSION: Rotary Peace Fellow and former Burmese activist Naing Ko Ko is learning about Australian politics with Federal MP Janelle Saffin. Doug Eaton

BURMESE political activist, democracy advocate and former political prisoner, Naing Ko Ko was in town this week, visiting old friend and Page MP, Janelle Saffin.

Naing's story is a powerful one, both uplifting and saddening.

He began fighting for democracy and peace after his experiences as a teenager in Burma, including seeing friends shot by generals.

He began appearing in protests and organising student groups, requesting democracy and human rights, before being arrested by the Military Intelligence Service in 1992 and made a political prisoner.

"I really would like to learn about Australian democracy. There's a lot we could learn about the Australian federal democracy system," he said.

He was incarcerated until 1998, spending time at different interrogation camps and jails, including the notorious Insein Prison, where he was kept in a dog cell - where prisoners were treated like dogs, even forced to bark - as punishment for learning English.

While in prison, Naing said he kept himself sane by reading and writing in English - even though that was what was getting him punished.

He said he knew if he wanted to make a difference he needed to learn English, and that kept him going.

Secondly, he felt he had a responsibility to help all the political prisoners and friends who were still on the inside when he was released.

"Most of us are students. We are not terrorists. We are not criminals," he said of himself and his fellow prisoners.

"We just wanted human rights and democracy."

After his release in 1998, Naing was invited by many European countries to work there, and spent time working with democracy groups and the European Parliament.

Now a resident of New Zealand after becoming a political refugee there, he is studying his Advanced Masters of International Relations at the University of Queensland via a Rotary Scholarship. He's also using the time to observe Australian democratic processes.

"I really would like to learn about Australian democracy. There's a lot we could learn about the Australian federal democracy system," he said.

"I hope that Burma is a free, peaceful democracy in 20 years, instead of (a country where everyone is) killing each other."

He said he could see change in the country now known as Myanmar, although there was still a long way to go.

"It is good; it is going in the right direction, step-by-step."

Naing said to create national reconciliation they must have open dialog between civilians and generals.

Topics:  burma, myanmar, naing ko ko, page mp janelle saffin


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