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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
A tragic end game for Myanmar’s freed democracy advocates
YANGON, Myanmar — The chaos puts Aung Kyaw Moe at peace.
He takes in the crowd’s euphoric screams, swats back the limbs outstretched in hopes of brushing fingers against Aung San Suu Kyi, a superstar dissident expected by millions to shepherd Myanmar out of the darkness. Here, his shattered life has purpose.
Aung Kyaw Moe — 40, cherub-faced, built like an oil drum — is tasked with protecting Myanmar’s most celebrated figure at crowded events. He is a pro bono, part-time security guard, part of a legion of men whose loyalty is considered ironclad following stints in prison for the pro-democracy cause.
“Sometimes she scolds us for being too rough with the crowds. But as security, we can’t be democratic,” he said. The crowds are largely composed of gleeful supporters grateful to glimpse an icon long hidden away under house arrest. But her protectors are mindful of past assassination attempts. “Our responsibility is to protect her at all costs,” he said, “and all we have are our hands.”
Over the past two years, as Myanmar’s reviled military has ceded direct control to a partially elected parliament under its sway, nearly 2,000 political prisoners have been freed in mass amnesties. That so many dissidents are being liberated without violent upheaval is hailed as historic by the White House, which has peeled back more than a decade’s worth of harsh sanctions.
These releases have also freed Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps the most famous former political prisoner alive next to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The prim and elegant daughter of Aung San, an independence hero who helped cast out British imperialists, her own premiership was thwarted when the military voided her party’s 1990 election win.
Since her 2010 liberation, Aung San Suu Kyi has ascended to parliament. There, she has joined ex-generals in working to overhaul this troubled nation, an act of reconciliation applauded around the world. A casual observer of Myanmar can be forgiven for assuming she and her pro-democracy foot soldiers have entered an era of celebration and triumph.
But many rank-and-file former political prisoners — like Aung Kyaw Moe — are still struggling to find their place in reform-era Myanmar.
They have exited prison gates to cheering crowds only to return home to unbearable strife. Divorce is common. So are evaporated livelihoods and children that barely know them. Their bodies are still weakened from prison diets: half-spoiled rice and stews made of rotting vegetables. Their thoughts drift back to interrogation rooms where the beatings would drag on for days.
“When you go to jail, everything falls apart. Your family falls apart,” said Aung Kyaw Moe, an entrepreneur whose bookshop went bust during his most recent prison stint from 2007 to 2012. “Two friends sent to court with me both got divorced. I’m lucky to still have a wife.”
A disciple of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party since the 1990s, Aung Kyaw Moe was arrested for arranging pro-labor union seminars at a US State Department facility in Yangon, the American Center, and later charged for joining a gathering larger than five people. The gathering in question was the so-called “Saffron Revolution,” a 2007 street uprising backed by tens of thousands defying totalitarian rule. It was violently crushed by the military.
“I did something good. I went to jail for a good cause,” Aung Kyaw Moe said. And yet, in his wife’s eyes, the sacrifices that ingratiated himself to Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement are sabotaging the family.
Desperate to feed and clothe their son in her husband’s absence, she sold off his shop’s inventory of books. The family is now reliant on her meager seamstress income; Aung Kyaw Moe’s road gigs with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party amount to unpaid volunteerism. They live in a ramshackle home, built of moldy bricks and cheap plywood, with 20 others outside Yangon.
“My wife says politics interfere with my job search,” he said. “She’d be thrilled if I quit.” His son, now seven, is scarred from seeing him in shackles at court dates. Worse yet, he said, the boy turned agoraphobic after witnessing security forces attack a crowd at a birthday party for Aung San Suu Kyi