What it's like to go to jail for your beliefs ... and forgive your captors

Illustration by Gwen Keraval

From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian. In this issue, we kick off 2016 with first-person accounts of Rotary members' most harrowing and heartfelt personal experiences. Pick up the issue to explore more stories.

Naing Ko Ko

Rotary Peace Fellow

University of Queensland, Australia, 2012-13

In 1988, when I was 16, I began to protest with other students for democracy, human rights, and social justice in my home country of Burma, now called Myanmar. Four years later, I was arrested and tortured for two months in an interrogation camp. I was shackled and beaten. I was not allowed to sleep. They put a cloth over my eyes and a hood over my head, so I could not tell the day from the night. They asked me the same questions over and over. It was quite similar to George Orwell’s 1984. After this, I was sent to a special court. I was given no lawyer, just sent directly to prison.

They did not want us to learn in prison, but I had a dream to go and study overseas when I was released. I convinced a guard to smuggle books to me. I received a dictionary to learn English and books on economics and philosophy. I dug a hole in the wall of my cell and hid the books and covered the hole with an image of the Buddha. I studied English at night and in the day I slept.

But one day, I got sleepy and didn’t hide the books, and they were discovered. After that, I was moved to a cell where they kept the dogs. They put me in shackles again and made me behave as if I were a dog. If they called my name, “Naing Ko Ko!” I had to respond, “Woof! Woof!” When the guards came, I had to kneel down and press my face to the floor and not look at their face. They put the food on the ground and I had to eat just with my mouth, like a dog. With water it was this way, too.

At this time, I realized that I would die in the prison if I remained fighting and stubborn. I knew I had to accept the reality and control my mind or I would go crazy in that place. There were others who committed suicide. They smashed their heads against the wall. I didn’t want to be defeated in this way. I did not want to die in front of inhuman wardens.

But I had also to remember that the guards were not educated people. They were part of a system. So I started to talk with them. I said, “Come on. We are just students. We are not murderers or criminals. We only want the right to learn and to make a democracy.” I tried to explain as much as I could, from reading the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Many did not respond at all. But I kept talking. I made my voice loud. After many times talking, some prison guards replied to me. We became familiar and finally like close friends.

After six years and eight months, I was released. I am now fulfilling my dream of studying overseas at Australian National University in Canberra. Of all the prisoners who were arrested in the protests, I think I am the only one who is getting a Ph.D.

More than 3,000 people died during the democracy protests of 1988. Thousands more went to prison like me. We became known as the “88 Generation” because we called for democracy and human rights.

We cannot forget what happened in places like the dog cell. But we must forgive the guards and wardens or we cannot move forward. You cannot make a democracy with rage in your heart. There must be forgiveness. It is important to talk about justice. But revenge and justice are not the same.

For me, the best revenge is to become someone who can work to change my country systematically. I want to return to Myanmar to become a chief policy adviser. I want to work on anti-corruption and anti-poverty programs and social justice, and most of all the peacemaking process. I want the interrogation camp where I was tortured to become a museum so we never forget this part of our history and never repeat it.

Are you interested in working for peace and conflict resolution? Find out how to become a Rotary Peace Fellow or support the Rotary Peace Centers at www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships.

The Rotarian



#1   Submitted By Gbemisoye Tijani on 31-Jan-2016 03:50 pm

Naiing Ko ko s bold and strategically wise fight for democracy in his inexorable country is rare of a 21 st century  cconscientious activist .I commend his spirit he acted the Buddha nature in him all through the torture and remained friendly to the chip of the old block wardens and guards too.I m so buoyed he didnt relte with them with animosity he rather radiated friendship and affability to them even though they were unable to grasp the brotherhood in democracy he was trying to woo them to embrace.I didnt know how much K K K had read prior to  his reckless arrest and ducking.he behaved somehow as if he whas read Mandiba Mandela who stretched hand s of fellowship to the guards and learn the language of his opponebts all in the prisons. K.K.K. s spirit is typically Buddhist.I was once a Buddhist too the  Soka Gakkai  Lay sect  from Japan headed by Sensei Ikeda and recognised as  one of the United Nations ambassadors/Non-profit.Buddhist never revenge and although this also replicates a s a teaching in Christ Jesus Christianity too forgiveness is a virtue worth cultivating for  relating wholesomely in everyday life.This Rotarian s boldness must have been rooted in his religious background.These days of overwhelming materialism most people put their faith in their pockets instead of acting it out to make a delightful difference in knotty situations.I can safely describe the spiritually productive attitude of KKK in what Linda Goodman called Loving Enough .This creative American astrologer and creative writer said in his book Sun Signs that Dont worry -you too can become a saint -provided you can show love in lieu of behaving otherwise to those saying all manners of evil,demonstrating all forms of hatred to you .She philosophised furthe that Loving enough is not easy but it can gather enough power to level barriers seemingly insurmountable as amplified above in KKK s eventual release from the  gaol without trial .Surely his anonymous readers and Rotarians will also appreciate the guards not so extreme and wicked handling of his  unjust incarceration.Frank enough for his candid mind he was able to act out why they were unjustly arrested -they were trendy students requesting for a democratic order that will liberate the Burmese people and new generation-in a comparatively candid  for- better-for- worse way that Malala cried out for the girl education in Pakistan. Religions and politics aside I love Rotarians who recognize that although Mother Nature  created all and surely controls all affairs  of sustaining the firmament -politics controls a lot of things in premordial  and modern era and as such we cant afford to be indifferent to politics because this affects economcs and global pollution.Besides no country is an island of her own these one world of a global village by internet.Also some early scientist are known to declare for any religion but   the great scientist,Isaac Newton  viewed  that there must be  a superior  intelligence behind the orderly arrangement of the universe.

Congratulations to KKK and all those who inspired him -their laudable dreams of liberty  have been realised somehow.There s a caveat for the matured fully harmed with his PhD to return to his home country and advise politically....If necessary Burma must custimise her own democracy instead of modelliin or copying  hookline and sinker just like that as is happening in Africa since 5 decades ago and although democracy look best -where are the dividends and ethics  despite manifold natural & trained human  resources,hydrocarbon galore!.Despite uncustomised democracy most African democracies are stil poor and languishing in abject or needless poverty because of poor ethics and insensitivity  to good governance and lack of meaning in going to serve in politics.Ostentation and inordinate consumerism have been typical signs and aura of sit tight politicians who revel in rulling like the old school till the king dies dynasty!

There has been democracy and we still desire a more endogenous and ethically lazed democratic practice than hitherto .Evidently as at now in modern Africa -most conscientious Rotarians will agree that our story is NOT YET UHURU meaning not yet a peace or in  a more scientific language Not Yet Eureka'.Felicitations on your story as divulve to the Rotarian.

Gbemisoye Tijani,PP,PHF,PR Chair,Charter Treasurer ,ROTI,Regional Coordinator (Healthy Living Communications),Trevo Life & Health Coach,Creator One world wrappers Group(October 2015),GTJMST natural health information Group(30/1/2016

Former Unesco Youth Club Founder & Leader,RI Monitor @Minjibir 2012 Oct spd National Polio Immun ization,October 2012),Trainer ,RC Oluyole Estate,Cedar Resorts Ibadan,D9125

#2   Submitted By Gbemisoye Tijani on 31-Jan-2016 03:53 pm

apology for errata : I intend to write revenge not relte (4th line)


#3   Submitted By Gbemisoye Tijani on 31-Jan-2016 03:58 pm


You keep inviting Rotarians to key in to Rotary Peace Fellowship but we also find out Rotarians arent eligible to apply for the same.-which way? We will appreciate your clarifications  please ..

Gbemi,1257 am,01022016,Nigerian Time

#4   Submitted By Grace Okaro on 15-Feb-2016 10:30 pm

It is good to stand up for what you believe in despite all odds but it takes a lot of commitments.

Rotarians are not eligible to be peace scholars but it would be good to give Rotarians' children the opportunity to be peace scholars. That way, Rotary membership becomes more rewarding, I elect that RI looks into that aspect of our policy.

#5   Submitted By S.R Yogananda on 15-Feb-2016 11:44 pm

It highlights Rotarys involvement in Peace and Conflict resolution

PDG Yogananda S R

#6   Submitted By Hassaan Binsaadat on 16-Feb-2016 04:41 am



#7   Submitted By Kelsie Garbutt on 19-Feb-2016 10:55 pm

Very inspiring! 

#8   Submitted By Gbemisoye Tijani on 24-Feb-2016 05:17 pm

kudos to the like s of Naing KoKo  -you re a paragon of selfless spirit -maybe your Buddhist background also helped you not to give up in the face of yelling dificulty and needless reckless gaol conditions.Its the like of you that will perpetuate Rotary values and membership 

Gbemi Tijani pp phf trainer rc club 77106 ibadan

24 02  2016

#9   Submitted By FRANKELIN BANDIERA on 26-Feb-2016 09:00 am

Isso sim, é lição de vida e amor no coração, teriamos outro mundo com pensametos e ações assim!


#10   Submitted By Sandra Malschitzky on 4-Mar-2016 12:53 pm

Belissimo depoimento, parabéns pela perseverança em lutar pela vida, sem ódio no coração , emanar  amor e paz após ter vivido tudo isso é literalmente viver em prol da paz.