Conversations with Burma’s Political Prisoners
Hundreds of hot air balloons rise with the sun as Bagan, in central Myanmar, wakes to the steady drone of electric motorcycles. Thousands of tourists travel upon them, making the dusty journey to towering temples far from the centre of town. Many Australians are within the tribe of Westerners ascending the narrow brick steps of the temples constructed thousands of years ago. The wide river stretches out in the foreground, dappled by the first rays of light for the day.
Myanmar has been described by travel writers as “other worldly”, and it isn’t hard to see why. Bullocks begrudgingly pull wooden carts loaded to the hilt with sticky chickpea plants in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an 1800s period film. Buddhist prayers are amplified across cities and villages alike, sometimes continuing throughout the night. Monks are common, and the devout respect for religion across the population is unshakable.
Bordering Thailand, China, Laos and Bangladesh, Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s hidden treasures. Escaping (for now) the well-developed tourism industry of Thailand and maintaining local culture and ancient tradition, Myanmar has become one of the most popular tourist destinations for Australians. From Yangon’s bustling colonial streetscape to the serenity of Bagan’s 3,000 ancient temples, Myanmar is a country of diversity, simplicity and resilience.
Isolated from the world for almost five decades by oppressive military rule, the country is shrouded in a sense of mystery seen only in North Korea. Now, with the transition towards democracy in the country and the spotlight firmly held on Myanmar’s tourist offerings, Australians are making the trek, revelling in its immense natural beauty and deeply reverent Buddhist culture.
Simmering beneath the surface of the Myanmar’s beauty is a deep resilience and determination. 62 years of military dictatorship has resulted in what locals describe as a “trauma society”.
After travelling almost 14 hours by bus from the idyllic tourist hotspot of Bagan along tedious roads, some being built by hand by young, worn women, I reach the barren, dusty border town of Mae Sot. There, Ko Tate Naing sits in a small dark office, comprising of a desk, computer and leather chair. A portrait of national heroine, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, holds prime position on the limited wall space. Desktop decorations are sparse; a statue of a fist marked with the numbers 8888 (to mark the 1988 political uprising in Burma) stands between Ko Tate and I as we speak.
Ko Tate Naing was arrested by Burma’s military dictatorship in 1990 and spent three years in prison for publishing a pro-democracy journal. There, like thousands of other political prisoners, he endured torture, malnutrition and a lack of hygiene. For three months, Ko Tate’s family were unaware of his imprisonment. Many of his pro-democracy colleagues were killed during interrogations or due to the poor conditions within prison.
Across the room, in another office shared by three middle-aged Burmese men, Kyaw Soe Win, director of AAPP’s mental health program, leans back in his large leather chair and inhales his Burmese cigar. At the age of 24, Kyaw Soe Win was imprisoned for six years for protesting against changes to the Constitution brought about by the military. At the time, he was studying chemistry at Yangon University. He was never to resume these studies, but spent many years after his prison stint studying informally. Albert Camus was a favourite of Kyaw Soe Win, a notion that seems at odds with his broken English and spartan lifestyle. Philosophical concepts drifted between us as we ate our lunch together, Kyaw Soe Win happy to have someone to discuss his theories with.
With a big, kindly and open face and infectious laugh, it is difficult to believe that Kyaw Soe Win had suffered from such horrors. His approach to life was both self-effacing and inspiring, and he must have sensed my confusion, explaining, “The best way of self-coping is leaving it in the past. I was in prison for six years. Oh! Just six years. Some of my friends were living in prison for 10 or 20 years. Also, I get the different experiences to survive my life outside of the prison. I am a normal human, I want the best things or the good things, but I can face those bad things in my future life. I am ready to face the trouble, I am ready to face the bad things, because I was trained. I was trained.”
This sense of acceptance is a common thread amongst the political prisoners living in Mae Sot. Ko Bo Kyi, co-founder of AAPP, spoke of meeting one of the military men who tortured him during his seven years in prison for his role in the 1988 Uprising against the government. Upon recognising Ko Bo Kyi, the man fled. Bo Kyi chased the man, caught him and invited him to share tea with him in one of Burma’s traditional teahouses. He described this occasion with a surprising calmness, his dark eyes betraying no emotion. “I said to him, ‘Do not worry about that’”, he told me. “’You are soldiers and you have to follow the order from the top or from your boss. But domestic law did not allow you to torture me.’”
This resilience and determination has culminated in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending fight for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. While these men are unfailingly respectful, intelligent and forgiving, their easy-going nature in the face of such hideous rights violations cannot be mistaken for weakness. As Myanmar continues to develop economically, and under the new government, these men are the silent faces behind the new Myanmar. They are the faces of change, of lasting trauma and horrific experiences being transformed into resilience and determination. Each day, they advocate for change, so that their experiences of trauma do not occur in the future.
Cover by Guilherme Romano