By Avery Keatley 

Kyi Tha Tun was 10 years-old when he first realized it. 

Growing up in Burma (now called Myanmar), he recalls widespread poverty and waiting in lines for basic necessities at government cooperatives. What little they managed to find was poor in quality. His father explained why they had to wait in such long lines for very little: socialism, and a dictatorial military government that seized power in the coup of 1962. 

In 1988, the year Kyi turned 10, the same military junta still held power. Kyi began to see the country he grew up in as a prison, unaware that he would spend 14 years in an actual Burmese prison for helping to organize one of the largest student protests in the nation’s history. 

In March 1988, the nation’s largest uprising began and lasted until September, when it was violently suppressed by the junta. The demonstration led to what Kyi calls “relatively free” elections in 1990, in which the democratic party won by a landslide. But the junta refused to acknowledge the results, and instead cracked down even harder. After the election, Kyi says the regime “treated the whole country like a prison,” using tactics not unlike Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia: agents of the newly founded State Law and Order Restoration Council could monitor the travel, private communications, and homes of any individual, and make arrests without warrants. By the end of the uprising, many Burmese were missing and 10,000 were dead. The regime declared an unwritten and unabashedly corrupt political war on anyone bold enough to challenge it, including political dissidents, their relatives, and students. 

Kyi completed his matriculation exams for university in 1995, and began reading books by and about revolutionaries, as well as books on political theory: The End of History by Fukuyama, Making Globalization Work by Stiglitz, and Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. Inspired by their writings, he decided to become a revolutionary himself, and joined underground student groups on his campus. They formed book clubs and study groups, and posted pamphlets on bulletin boards when they could, demanding student, civil and political rights. A few student leaders were beaten by police prior to the protest. Though the students demanded justice, Kyi says “the authorities did nothing to fulfill our demands.” One week after the students’ beating, the student groups decided to march through the capital city, Rangoon, including Kyi as a junior leader.

From the video footage, the protest looks peaceful. Despite the thousands of students in the streets, they appear only to be marching, holding signs, and chanting. In response to the protest, the government made a statement that the two police officers who had beaten the students had been punished, and left their comments at that. However, their actions told a much different story: the police rounded up “a few hundred students” according to the Associated Press, for “identity checks,” under the guise that they suspected some protesters were not students. 

Ten years after the democratic uprising in 1998, at the age of 20, Kyi was arrested. He was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison under section 5J of the Emergency Provisions Act of 1950.  The act aims to imprison those who would “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group…in a way that would undermine the security of the Union.”

Prison conditions were brutal. Confined to a hot cell and often in solitary confinement, Kyi said that prisoners were not allowed to use mosquito nets, and were often deprived of food and sleep as a method of torture and interrogation. 

Kyi endured one week of initial interrogation.  He remembered two “good cops” who interrogated him for two hours.  After a five-minute break, the “bad cops” entered the room for an additional two-hour interrogation. Prisoners were forced to squat or assume “stressful, uncomfortable, or painful positions,” recalled Kyi.  Inmates were sometimes forced into “dog cells,” where they would be held and tortured. All were subject to malnutrition, inadequate medical treatment, and were forbidden from exercising.  As if the prison conditions weren’t brutal enough, the prisoners endured beatings, canings, kicking, sexual humiliation, and electrocution by the guards.  

While imprisoned, Kyi risked additional prison time to learn English. So, why take the risk?  “Sheer defiance,” Kyi said. “Dictators expected that student activists would break down in prison and become…afraid to stand up to them. We did not want, and could not afford, to let their expectations [come] true.”

He smuggled books and read anything he could get in English, from the Bible to medicine bottles. Reading or writing itself was enough to earn an additional seven years, plus a severe beating. But Kyi went even further, listening to BBC broadcasts and VOA Special English, a language learning program, on a smuggled MP4 player. This is where Kyi spent 14 years of his life.  He would have spent another 10 if he hadn’t been released in October 2011, after a sweeping round of amnesty was granted to about 6,000 political prisoners. Kyi was among them. 

He had heard rumors two days before that the president, Thein Sein, was going to grant amnesty to a number of prisoners. He and his fellow inmates were too excited to eat or sleep, he explained. But whether that was from excitement or anxiety is hard to say: “there were two strange feelings cohabitating in me; [I] wanted to escape from the prison walls, but [I was] also a little worried about facing uncertainties.” 

When Kyi was jailed in September 1998, Hugo Chavez had not yet come to power, the World Trade Center still dominated the New York skyline, Nokia was the most popular cell phone producer, and Google had just been founded in a garage in Menlo Park. By the time he was released, Apple had just introduced Siri to the world, the final Harry Potter movie was in post-production, and Google offices, full of toys and snacks, were some of the most enviable places to work. Kyi had lots to catch up on. He and his inmates wondered how they could continue their education, or their careers, which had been put on hold for over a decade.   Kyi said that during the dictatorship, nearly all of the universities were destroyed, and he saw English and an education in the West as his only ticket out. 

After he was released, he finished his undergraduate education and attended a six-month English workshop held by the British Council. He worked as a program coordinator for three years at a civil society organization called Educational Initiatives, helping to translate materials and assist trainers, while continuing to work with ethnic political parties and the National League for Democracy. In 2015, Kyi did some Googling and found that GSPIA was ranked in the top 20 U.S. master’s programs by Foreign Policy. He decided to apply because, despite recent reforms, he sees dangers in the road to democracy: 

“Living under a brutal military dictatorship…many politicians are obsessed only with political issues […] what they do not understand is that members of the former regime have stripped significant economic assets and are using the current transition period to concentrate…even more economic powers and advantages. These old guards will use their richness to win future elections, this time, with legitimacy.” 

To combat this, Kyi has a rigorous plan of study. After he finishes his MPIA degree at GSPIA in 2018, he plans to continue his education in the U.S. before returning to Burma. He wants to gain as much knowledge as possible, so that when he returns, he can start the work of creating a political think tank to contribute to the nation’s political transition. Though GSPIA is just one step in his plan to help build democracy in Burma, the steps he took to get here are nothing short of remarkable.