Who is he?
Min Ko Naing (which translates as “conqueror of kings”) is the alias of Myanmar democracy activist Paw Oo Tun. He was born in Yangon and during his student years he acted in plays and skits which satirized the former military regime.
Min Ko Naing rose to prominence during the 1988 democracy uprising, when he addressed large crowds on the streets of Yangon and arranged for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver her first rally speech at the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. After the protests were brutally crushed by the military, he was arrested and imprisoned for 15 years. He was detained two more times before being released in January 2012.
Min Ko Naing is often described as the most influential opposition figure in Myanmar after Aung San Suu Kyi. He was recognized in September by the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy for his struggle for freedom and democracy, but he refused to go to Washington to receive the award in solidarity with other awardees who couldn’t travel because the government refused to give them passports.
Why is he in the news?
Following his release early this year, Min Ko Naing quickly resumed his leadership role among the 1988 generation activists. In September, he made a visit to Kachin state where he spoke to refugees and people displaced by the ongoing conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army.
Min Ko Naing is a strong advocate for farmers’ rights. He addressed in Yangon September 30 a crowd of 300, in a speech in which he condemned large-scale land confiscations in Sagaing division, a mountainous region in the northwest of Myanmar, over a copper mining project, and the lack of transparency in the government’s handling of land disputes. The audience included environmental activists, intellectuals, Buddhist monks, and farmers.
In the wake of a fresh outbreak of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, Min Ko Naing October 29 called for both sides to resolve their grievances through peaceful means, and warned that more conflicts akin to that in Rakhine could happen in the future if the current government failed to establish the rule of law in the country.
What can we expect from him?
As Myanmar moves from authoritarian rule, it needs a strong civil society capable of speaking out on important issues and pushing for transparency in areas long monopolized by the military and its cronies. Given his proven record of political activism, popularity with ethnic groups, and approachable leadership style, Min Ko Naing is emerging as one of the most respected activists.
He will likely play a key role in straightening Myanmar’s democracy through his efforts in demanding government accountability, pressing for coordination between civil society actors and different branches of government, and grooming the next generation of Myanmar political activists.