As Min Ko Naing ascended the steps of the 2013 Human Rights Cities stage at the Kim Dae-jung Convention Center in Gwangju last May 17, the scars of the war he fought against Myanmar's military regime for 20 years of his life, was evident. He walked with a visible limp on his left leg. Clad in the traditional Burmese sarong and white shirt, Ko Naing, 51, accepted the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, which he won in 2009.
The military government of Burma hunted Ko Naing after the 1988 violent outbreak, for mobilizing students into action. As a result he made it in the local authorities' most wanted list. Imprisoned in 1989, he was released in 2004.
Ko Naing then formed Generation 88, so he could express his opposition even louder, while striving to achieve a peaceful resolution to the political crisis in Myanmar. But it must have been a lethal opposition, because it upset the government so much that he was thrown back in jail in 2007.
In January 2012, Ko Naing -- who has since been reported as the most prospective opposition leader after Aung San Suu Kyi -- was finally released, enabling him to receive the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights award he won in 2009, last May.
One day after the award presentation event, he was interviewed by Tempo journalist Hermien Y. Kleden in Gwangju.
Ko Naing still refers to his country as Burma, and not Myanmar. He pauses often after the question is posed, as if coaxing the right words in response.
Excerpts from the interview:
After 20 years in jail, what kind of life would you now like to lead?
I want to live an ordinary life, among the grass root communities. I am basically an artist, so I wish I could paint more. There is so much artwork in my mind right now. I want to compose more songs. I have written many of it... and write poems. But I have no intention of entering politics or joining political parties.
How so? Some of your associates from the Generation 88, including the armed fighters, have come out of the jungle and entered the world of politics and power.
I am just a freedom fighter, not political leader. I become confused when people come and ask me to be their leader.
Why is that?
Because I want to remain a freedom fighter. Fighting for freedom is all I know and I will continue to struggle for it peacefully.
Wouldn't you be doing more for the people in Myanmar if you appeared as a leader?
You need good education and capability to construct the future of a country, which I don’t have. I have to honestly confess that I have no ability to lead, I don’t have economic knowledge. I don’t know how to construct, to shape, to design future of my country. Therefore, I always push my comrades to be good “architects” for Burma. If freedom is suppressed, we will fight. But, again, I am not an architect of the nation.
You are known as the opposition figure most feared by the military regime, hence your imprisonment. Today, you seem unsure of leading the people.
According to a Burmese tradition, power and influence are definitely two different things. I don’t want to be powerful, but I want to be influential. People who want me as a political leader should change their mindset. I prefer the role of people like Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. They were free and influential. Let others be leaders or architects of our nation.
What are your expectations regarding the 2015 election in Myanmar?
I regard the 2015 election merely as a milestone, not our goal. I want to concentrate on building up civil society in the country as a foundation for democracy.
How would you describe 20 years of prison life?
It’s very difficult to describe it in words to people who live a normal life. Burma’s military prison system strictly prohibits human contact. They put me in a very narrow cell with a very low bed, almost touching the ground. After the first three years, they let me out to bend my knees and walk for a maximum of 15 minutes. I didn't have change of clothes. My cell is double-walled. In front of the iron bars, there is an empty room with closed door. They did everything to prevent any possible contact with any other prisoner.
Did you ever think life was hopeless?
Of course, around 10 times, thank you for this question. Nobody ever asked me. I wanted to kill myself many times, but I always gave myself second thought at last minute. The military regime intentionally put me in such a desperate, no-hope-situation. Ending up my life would give them exactly what they wanted. I reminded myself that I was the chairman of the All Federation of Burma Student Movements. Many people love and support me. How can I return their kindness by committing suicide?
How did you manage to keep mentally and physically healthy?
Since I was small, my parents taught me to meditate. Through meditation, I was able to survive. The military regime cannot restrict my wanderings and my dreams when I meditate. As for my physical health, my right hand is very weak. I almost cannot use it to paint. But the important thing was that I survived because of the love of many people. The love of my people kept me alive.
A complete version of this interview is also available in the June 10 to 16 edition of Tempo English.