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Breakfast with the ‘cabinet maker’: Building political change in Myanmar

Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown is writing from Myanmar (formerly Burma) as part of a new series, “Culture at Risk.” Learn more about why Jeff is there in his reflection, “Is culture at risk in Myanmar?

“I am a woodworker and designer,” Maung Hla Thaung tells us. “But I like to say I’m a ‘cabinet maker.’”

He lets out one of his big laughs and sees we understand the double meaning he intends. Over breakfast we’ve been talking about the political situation in Myanmar today and his work as a longtime opponent of the military regime. This is a man building furniture and, he hopes, political change.

We’re joined by Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of what’s known here as the ’88 generation — students who took to the streets in 1988 in protest against the dictatorship. It would end in a brutal crackdown of arrests and new repression. For Ko Ko Gyi it led to 18 years in prison: three separate stints, the last one ending only in 2012. He relates his story with a sense of ease, without rancor, almost casually.

I ask how it began. He was a young student, he says. He studied international relations and dreamed of being a diplomat. But he and his friends wanted the freedom to think and speak. Most of them, he says, ended up in prison or exile.

At this point Maung Hla Thaung speaks up: Ko Ko Gyi has been a political activist forever, he says. “I was one for about 15 minutes.” Again, the laugh.

He tells us of his accidental life in opposition. Before 1988, he says, he was an engineering student and not especially political. But he went along with friends to a demonstration and, seeing people watching from their houses, started shouting out, “Don’t be afraid, it’s OK.”

“I always had the loudest voice,” he says now. And suddenly people were looking at him — who is this guy? — and listening to him. At a large gathering, he says, someone pushed him forward to make a speech — the first in his life — and there he was, somehow a political leader.

Today, Maung Hla Thaung, in addition to his woodworking business, works for HOPE International Development Agency, focusing on the plight of ethnic minorities in the country. Ko Ko Gyi is secretary of the ’88 Generation organization, which continues to promote a “free and open society.” They remain wary of the political reform process underway here, seeing much done and said for the benefit of the international community — to help end sanctions and bring in more investments — but little in the way of real reform of the system.

These are the questions very much in play here: How far will democratic reform go? Will the military truly give up power? Or are the generals, having “put on civilian suits,” ready to put their uniforms back on at the first sign of losing power?

For the moment, though, there are other matters to attend to. As we prepare to depart, Ko Ko Gyi tells us that in several days he is getting married. (This brings one more belly laugh from Maung Hla Thaung — “So this time you’re getting a life sentence”!) The 51-year-old Ko Ko Gyi, clearly a man of dignity and purpose, is also not above a good laugh. “My fiancé is 20 years younger than I am”, he says. “But I don’t count my years in prison. So we are really very close in age.”

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