RANGOON — To an old telephone at his home in Rangoon, for four months he received four calls a day, at specified times. Already knowing who was on the other end of the line, Nay Min picked up the receiver to dictate information that he had from newsgathering in a country hardly welcoming of such activities. Outside, students were staging protests against the government of Gen. Ne Win and his heavy-handed tactics to suppress their pro-democracy demonstrations. It was late July, 1988.
For all his efforts to inform the world about demonstrations that would culminate in a nationwide protest known as the “8888 Uprising” on Aug. 8, 1988, Nay Min is not among the canonized pro-democracy crusaders who helped topple Burma’s single-party rule system more than 25 years ago.
“At that time, I had to keep my identity secret for fear of government retribution,” the 68-year-old told The Irrawaddy. “Plus, I feel embarrassed to say, ‘You see, that’s what I did.’”
But his preference for anonymity suddenly came to an end during a panel discussion at the East-West Center International Media Conference in Rangoon on Monday, when he was surprised by a trio of fellow journalists who honored him with a certificate recognizing his courage and conviction in 1988. For four months that year, and at great personal risk, Nay Min served as an unofficial stringer supplying information about the ongoing protests and government crackdowns to Christopher Gunness from the BBC’s World Service, who was based in neighboring Bangladesh as an international correspondent.
Veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, who writes extensively about Burma and was one of the three journalists who honored Nay Min this week, told The Irrawaddy that he felt the Burmese who supplied news from within the country to journalists on the outside should be remembered and honored.
“We would not have been able to do our job without their support,” Lintner said. “U Nay Min was the one who had to suffer the most because of the job he did, therefore we wanted to honor him and the work he did.”
Back in 1988, Burma was known as one of the most reclusive countries in the world, and press freedom was nonexistent. Foreign journalists were barred from entering the country.
As much of the outside world remained in the dark on happenings in Burma, public discontent over the regime’s mismanagement of the national economy was mounting. University students took to the streets en masse and were brutally suppressed.
“The country’s situation at that time was on the brink of explosion,” Nay Min recalled.
Trained as a lawyer, Nay Min found himself in early months of 1988 serving as a volunteer advocate for students unlawfully arrested by the regime for their participation in antigovernment protests. He had no journalism background, but showed an uncommon aptitude for newsgathering—and discretion.
“U Nay Min is also a man of great integrity and would often say, ‘I heard this, but don’t use it until I have checked it,’” the BBC’s Gunness told The Irrawaddy.
As antigovernment protests gathered steam in late July, Nay Min was contacted by Gunness and managed to send information to him via a land-line telephone. Prior to Aug. 8, and based on Nay Min’s work, the BBC reported that there would be a nationwide demonstration against the Ne Win regime on that fateful day, and the predicted protest came to fruition.
As a result, more and more people in Burma tuned into the BBC to glean the latest information on the protest movement. Nay Min even got a personal call from Aung San Suu Kyi, who rang him to clarify rumors that she was leading protests on the streets of Rangoon.
“She told me, ‘Please say in your report that I’m not taking part in the protests,’” he remembered.
Gunness acknowledged that Nay Min’s eyes and ears on the ground in Rangoon a quarter-century ago were “pivotal” to the BBC reports closely followed by the Burmese audience in 1988.
“When I was in Burma in August [for the Silver Jubilee celebration of the 8888 Uprising last year] people kept telling me about my own role, but the true hero of 1988 is U Nay Min,” he told The Irrawaddy in an email.
“Of course there were many students and activists of all ages who were brave beyond imagination, but U Nay Min’s role was pivotal, as I told journalists and others repeatedly when I was in Burma and as I now say again,” the former BBC correspondent said.
But when the government staged a bloody crackdown on demonstrators on the night of Aug. 8 in downtown Rangoon, Nay Min said he faced a moment of deep moral uncertainty.
“When I learned about the crackdown, I broke into tears as I felt guilty because it was me who broke the news that there would be a huge protest on that day,” he said.
“If I hadn’t said anything, people wouldn’t have known and they wouldn’t have joined it.”
For his reporting he was arrested twice, spending 16 years in prison and suffering severe torture at the hands of authorities. During stints in solidarity confinement, he slept on a concrete floor and used a plate as a pillow.
“I no longer have my molars. They are gone not because of my old age but because of interrogation sessions I went through,” he said.
These days, in his late 60s, Nay Min spends most of his time meditating, and said he holds no grudge against the former military government for what its leaders did to him. But, like most other former political prisoners, he insisted that “the military government has to admit to their wrongdoing.”
Asked to consider the ethics and impact of his actions nearly 26 years ago, he said he believed he had done the right thing, helping to show the world what was happening inside Burma and contributing to the country’s transition from single- to multi-party rule.
“Nobody can deny that the single-party rule was toppled by the 88 Uprising,” he said.
And all these years later, is Nay Min pleased with Burma’s political landscape today?
“No. So far we’ve only got what the government wants to give, from political prisoners’ [release] to constitutional amendment issues. It’s quite despairing.”