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In this interview, Aung Kyaw Tun, a former political prisoner and a consultant for the Myanmar Institute for Democracy, discusses his experience in the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum and the conditions in his country. During his year in the program, Aung Kyaw Tun studied philosophy at Dagon University in Yangon and worked with the Open Society Foundation to implement a psychosocial rehabilitation program in Burma. As he explains in this conversation, he now plans to open a youth network center to offer personal development and political literacy classes for young people in his native township.


Why did you want to participate in the Liberty and Leadership Forum?


The Liberty and Leadership Forum consists of three main areas: political philosophy, market economy and leadership. I didn’t get the chance to learn these things, especially political philosophy, at schools and university. I was a former political prisoner and am still active in politics, so I am very interested in learning them.


I had acquired some knowledge about political philosophy and market economics by reading books, but I knew it was not enough without being taught properly. Moreover, I wanted to learn leadership skills so I can help lead my community and country. That’s why I participated in the Liberty and Leadership Forum.


How did participating in the Forum change or reaffirm your goals?


The participation gave me confidence for what I want to do. In the past, I just thought about fostering “democracy” back in Burma. Now, I realize that democracy alone cannot guarantee the liberty and freedom for people. We also need to work to assure that the people of Burma enjoy liberty and freedom while practicing genuine democracy.


One of your goals for the next year is to start a center for youth.  Can you describe your vision for this center? 


My vision is that all youths in my native township will participate in political and civil activities while preparing themselves for their future. The participants will mainly be youths between the ages of 16 to 24. They will be trained in leadership skills and civic engagement.


In my township, there are many young people who are interested in taking part in political and civic life. However, they have limited access to learn how to do that. That’s why many youths are just wasting their time at tea shops and, sadly, some at liquor houses.


Moreover, many youths are at risk of being exploited by aggressive nationalist propagandas. Since my township is one of the biggest townships and the place where many grass-root people live, we need to educate them with democratic ideas, norms and behaviors. This can help prevent possible threats from the extreme nationalism that has recently incited mass violence in Burma.


So, my friends and I decided that we need to provide young people a civic education, strategies for personal development and the basic concepts of democracy and human rights. If they have enough knowledge about these things, they can be fully aware of any threats and become active citizens.


As a former political prisoner, what are some of the biggest challenges that individuals face after they are released?


There are many challenges and difficulties for a political prisoner after being released. The biggest is, I think, rehabilitating yourself so you can adapt again in the new circumstance.


Almost all political prisoners have difficulty communicating with their family and friends since so many social and communication changes occurred while they were in prison. Another challenge is financial hardship. Some prisoners were their family’s bread winners. In their absence, their family’s financial situation may have deteriorated or, worse, been ruined.


Some student activists can restart their unfinished education, but some cannot because their families are impoverished. They have to ignore their desire to keep up their education.


These are the some of the challenges for former political prisoners.


Elizabeth Hoffman is program manager for the Human Freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute