Interview With Mai Po Po: “…till the dawn of true democracy in Burma”
26 June, 2009 – Vancouver, Canada [CG Note: Today, June 26, 2009 marked the 33rd anniversary of the execution of Burma’s most celebrated student hero Salai Tin Maung Oo. On the occasion of this anniversary, Chinland Guardian has a chance to interview Mai Po Po, former student political prisoner and younger sister of Salai Tin Maung Oo.
Salai Tin Maung Oo, a legendary hero among student activists and freedom lovers in Burma’s pro-democracy movements is the only student leader sentenced to death in history. Salai Tin Maung Oo Memorial Day is celebrated among Chin community in Europe, Asia and North America.]
Chinland Guardian: It will be great for all the Chinland Guardian readers if you can kindly tell us about your original family background such as where you were born, where you went to school and who your parents are etc.
Mai Po Po: To begin, I would like to tell you about my family background. My father’s name is Salai U Hla Din and my mother’s name is Mai Daw Hnin Myaing. Both of them are Asho-Chin. My father was born and raised in Sandaway. My father is a very brave man as evidenced by the fact that during World War II he fought against fascist Japan with the Z-Force British Intelligence Service in order to obtain Burmese independence.
As for my mother, she was born and raised in the township of Taungup in the Arakan Division. During World War II, some of my mother’s uncles and other close relatives were wrongfully persecuted and killed by the facist Japanese forces. Once Burma won its independence, my father worked as a radio operator in Burma’s telecommunication department until 1976. Until 1976, my mother worked as a midwife in the Thamaing Township.
As for myself, I was born and raised in the Thamaing Township, but later on I went to high school in the Kamayut, Hlaing Township until 1976.
Chinland Guardian: How would you describe your brother Salai Tin Maung Oo?
Mai Po Po: My brother Salai Ko Tin Maung Oo was born on November 9th, 1951 in the township of Taungoo. He spent his early schooldays in Thamaing. Ever since he was young, he was very bright and brave. He always took care of me in school, and he took care of his other younger brothers and sisters, as well. He loved his siblings so much. I still remember, even though he was young, he always stood up to bullies in school.
Also, he was very interested in sports. He started weight-lifting at the age of 13, and by the time he was 16 he was so strong, just like a full-grown man. As well, he seriously got into swimming, which he thoroughly enjoyed; he even won several high school swimming competitions and was selected as the best swimmer in the entire school. In regards to martial arts, he learned and became quite good at judo and karate. He could also play the violin very well and was an avid reader.
One of his most outstanding qualities was his insatiable generosity. He was such a giver and would help others including any friends and family members. My family was not very well-off, but he gave whatever he had in order to help others.
I still vividly remember one time when my father had bought him a beautiful and very colourful brand new shirt. But a week later we realized that he no longer had the shirt. So, my father asked him, “Where’s the new shirt that I bought for you?” Ko Tin Maung Oo replied, “I gave it away to my friend. He is so poor that he can’t even afford a shirt to wear, so I gave it to him.” He did this so many times. Brother Ko Tin Maung Oo had such a big heart when it came to helping poor and unfortunate people.
Chinland Guardian: While your brother was actively involved in the Students movement, were your family aware of his activities and how was your family reaction to him regarding his activities?
Mai Po Po: Ko Tin Maung Oo was in his early teenage years when he began to express his grief regarding the dynamite explosion of the Students’ Union building in 1962. As he grew up, he became more aware of the injustices surrounding him, particularly those caused by the Burmese military government. Evidently he felt strongly compelled to do something about these injustices.
Thus, when he became a 1st-year university student in 1971, majoring in Zoology, he became actively involved in the Students’ Underground Movement. My family was aware of this and, as a result, my parents became very worried about him because they knew there could be severe consequences if the military government ever found out about his activities.
I remember that he would quite often come home late from the university due to his activities with the Students’ Underground Movement. Whenever he was late my mother worried about him and waited up for him until he got home. I still recall one day in particular when he came home late and my mother talked to him very seriously saying, “My son, I worried about you so much and even shed tears for you.”
My brother Ko Tin Maung Oo replied, “I am really sorry that I made you worry and cry for me. Mom, there are many mothers who also shed tears for their sons and daughters who will never come home because the military government killed them. Some sons and daughters are in prison, too. I want to wipe the tears away from the eyes of those mothers.” I remember, every time he came home late he would pick 2 wild flowers from the backyard and give them to my mother. I guess he did this to comfort my mom.
Chinland Guardian: After he was arrested, did the family member ever visit him in jail or in detention?
Mai Po Po: Due to his connection with the Underground Movement he was detained in Insein Jail for 1 year from November 1972 to November 1973. Most of his imprisonment was spent in solitary confinement. A few months before his release, he was allowed to share a cell with other political prisoners. During his entire imprisonment, our family was not allowed to visit him.
I must mention at this point that I still remember the day he was released from prison. I think that the military government expected him to be discouraged and to give up. It seems to me though, that he came out from jail more determined and stronger than ever. That evening, the entire family and many of our friends gathered together, made him a special dinner and welcomed him home. That night, everyone asked him what it was like to be in jail. His answer came in the form of 2 songs about prison life that he had composed while he was in jail. He sang those 2 songs for all of us.
Chinland Guardian: Can you tell us about the last days of your brother Salai Tin Maung Oo?
Mai Po Po: I have so much to tell about brother Ko Tin Maung Oo, but now I would like to focus more on his last days. Of course he participated actively in the General Workers’ Strike of June 6th, 1974 and in the U Thant Uprising in December 1974. He was also very much involved in the strike held on the 1-year anniversary of the General Workers’ Strike. Sadly though, in March 1976 while he was planning for the Thakin Ko Daw Maing Centennial Uprising, his efforts were cut short because he was arrested on March 22nd, 1976.
A few days before his arrest, the military government arrested my whole family which included my parents and all the children ranging in age from 5-13 years old. They interrogated all of us regarding my brother Ko Tin Maung Oo. A terrible violation of human rights was committed when those military personnel beat up my 13-year old brother so badly that he fainted and fell down to the floor. They also threatened the other children in various ways. Later that same day, all of us were released except for the parents. My parents were kept in prison for the next 5 years.
Chinland Guardian: It is interesting to learn that you were in the Rangoon University campus to organize the protest after your brother was arrested? How old were you at that time?
Mai Po Po: The following day after we were released, we heard the devastating news on the 8 p.m. radio broadcast that brother Ko Tin Maung Oo had been arrested. All of us brothers and sisters were so grieved that we all sat down by our big old radio, held each other and cried. From that moment, I wiped my tears and vowed that I would carry on my brother’s unfinished activities in connection with the Thakin Ko Daw Maing Uprising. I was only 18 years old.
My younger brother Ko Hla Shwe, who was only 17 years old, and I snuck out of the house the next morning at 4 a.m. to continue the Thakin Ko Daw Maing Uprising. The reason we had to sneak out of our home was because there were Military Intelligence Service personnel watching our house. We went to the Rangoon Arts and Science University. I actively participated in that uprising. I hope to tell you next time about the details of my involvement with this uprising. Because of my participation in this uprising I was arrested and sentenced to 9 years in prison, while Ko Hla Shwe was sentenced to 7 years in prison.
Chinland Guardian: Did the authority ever inform your family that your brother Salai Tin Maung Oo would get a fair trial and that he was going to be executed?
Mai Po Po: At this point, our parents were in prison, Ko Hla Shwe and I were in prison, and so was my 2nd oldest brother. The only ones that were left behind were the youngest children, ages 5-13 years old. On June 25th, 1976, the day before Ko Tin Maung Oo’s execution, I remember that I was rushed out from my solitary confinement cell, handcuffed and blindfolded, and put into the back of a military Jeep. A few minutes later they brought my mother in the same fashion into the Jeep, and we were then driven to Thayawaddy Prison.
Along the way, my mother told me that she had been allowed to briefly see Ko Tin Maung Oo just before she was put into the Jeep. My mom told me that she was so happy to have seen brother Ko Tin Maung Oo alive that she cried in praise to God at the moment that she saw him. My mother told me that he looked very healthy and very fresh, and that he had told her, “Don’t worry about me, please take care of yourself,” and then he shed tears. The military personnel quickly rushed her out of the room away from brother Ko Tin Maung Oo and into the Jeep. Later on, I found out that my other 2 brothers were handcuffed, blindfolded and waiting in a different Jeep.
At that moment, my father also had the chance to meet with Ko Tin Maung Oo in the same room that my mother had met with him. When they met each other, Ko Tin Maung Oo told my father, “I have been given the death sentence.” Father replied, “Why do they have to give you the death sentence? You are not a criminal. You didn’t kill anybody. You did according to what you believed. You are only a political prisoner.” Brother Ko Tin Maung Oo then said to father, “There is no country in the world that hangs a student for his political beliefs. If they dare to do this, then let it be.” At that moment they rushed my father out of the room and into the Jeep with my 2 brothers. From there they were taken to Taungoo Prison.
The following day they hanged my brother. Brother Ko Tin Maung Oo’s last words included, “Comrades, they are killing me secretly!” Then, more directly to the executioners he said, “You guys can kill my body but you can never kill my beliefs and what I stood for. I will never kneel down to military boots!” Those were his last words.
Chinland Guardian: After 1976, people know very little about your family. What happened to your family after 1976?
Mai Po Po: From 1976 until 1980, my parents, two of my brothers and I remained in prison. In June 1980 we were released from prison. From 1980 to 1988 we led a very difficult life under the watchful eyes of the military government. We had no privileges. We even had to inform the military government if we simply wanted to travel somewhere overnight.
As you all know, in 1988 there was a nationwide uprising in which my brothers and I were actively involved. The uprising occurred in August 1988, and then there was a military coup in September 1988. At that point is when my family and I escaped to Thailand where we lived for approximately 2 years. Then we immigrated to Canada. Currently, I am living with my aging parents and taking care of them.
Chinland Guardian: There are several thousands students and freedom lovers from Burma whom your brother, yourself and your family had inspired in terms of fighting for justice and freedom. I am sure there must be something that you want to tell them.
Mai Po Po: When I think about it, my brother was arrested on March 22nd, 1976 and was killed within 3 months on June 26th, 1976 without any fair trial, without any lawyer. It shows how inhumane the military government is, and how blatantly they violate human rights. Till this day, they have never officially informed the family of brother Ko Tin Maung Oo’s execution.
In my view, the military government believes that if they blow up a Students’ Union Building, shoot and kill students, imprison students, and hang a student, that they will be able to extinguish the cry for freedom. In reality, my brother Ko Tin Maung Oo’s last words, “You can never kill my beliefs and what I stood for” is really true. How so? It shows in the fact there was the 1988 Uprising and the 2007 Saffron Uprising.
These events show that until the dawn of true democracy in Burma, there will always be those who, like Brother Ko Tin Maung Oo, will strive for freedom and justice and peace.