A documentary film about Burma’s political prisoners and the underground movement to help them premiered this week in Asia, drawing attention to the plight of the country’s activists as the government releases hundreds of prisoners in an amnesty program.
Director Jeanne Hallacy said former political prisoner and activist Ko Bo Kyi inspired her to make “Into the Current,” which made its regional debut in Bangkok Thursday to a sold-out audience at the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
“His mandate was, as a former political prisoner, he was going to work every which way he could on the global stage, to ensure that all these prisoners could be released,” she said.
Ko Bo Kyi spent seven years in prison in Burma before escaping to Thailand, where he co-founded the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in 1999.
Burmese authorities announced this month that they would be releasing 651 of the estimated 2,000 political activists behind bars in an effort to promote national reconciliation.
Ko Bo Kyi said those who remain in prison should not be forgotten.
“Political prisoners do not receive timely medical treatment, so there is not enough medication, and there are not enough doctors for the prisoners, therefore the prisoners suffer a lot,” he said, adding that even after their release, life is not easy.
He pointed to the case of Thet New, who died shortly after being freed under the government amnesty this month. The activist is believed to have died from the effects of torture suffered in prison.
Free, but not
Ko Bo Kyi said those who survive are still punished professionally and personally.
“The Burmese government doesn’t recognize the existence of political prisoners. Therefore, even after they were released, they are blacklisted. They do not receive passports. They do not get back their license,” he said.
Another focus of the film, co-produced by the Democratic Voice of Burma, is Ko Bo Kyi’s lifelong friend, the writer and poet Min Ko Naing. He is considered Burma’s most prominent opposition leader after Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and was released earlier this month.
Min Ko Naing forms a human chain with the '88 Generation Student Group. Rangoon, May 27, 2007.
“It was because of his unyielding stance, and the enormous risks that he took, over and over again, that put him in that position of being a leader of what was called the ‘88 Generation Group,” said Hallacy.
Min Ko Naing spent 16 years in solitary confinement, and emerged from prison in 2007, only to lead another protest that returned him to jail later that year.
The human toll
The human toll exerted on the government’s opponents is explored in “Into the Current.” Min Ko Naing speaks ruefully of his former girlfriend, who he says, “now belongs to someone else,” following his many years in prison. Ko Bo Kyi bid farewell to his parents when he fled Burma more than a decade ago. And Aung San Suu Kyi had to give up her family life with her late husband Michael Aris and her sons.
“Despite all of that, what is their response? It’s informed by their Buddhist belief, Metta, loving kindness,” said Hallacy.
In the film, Aung San Suu Kyi is asked if the National League for Democracy will show mercy to members of the former military government. “We all need mercy,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest over the past two decades. She was released in 2010, just days after controversial elections that gave Burma its first nominally civilian government since 1962.
She will be among the candidates vying for a seat in parliamentary by-elections in April. It will be the first time that she has been allowed to seek political office.