Two decades behind bars (Pt. 1)

“There is no easy road to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

These words were written by Nelson Mandela, a man who knows just how hard the road to freedom is for those who have to struggle and suffer for it.

Just over a year ago in Mae Sot, Thailand, I met another man who also knows how hard that road is. Thiha Yarzar had fled to Thailand from his home in Rangoon, Burma, just months before, after serving almost 18 years as a political prisoner in five different Burmese jails. Not long after we met, we agreed to work together to write the story of Thiha’s journey on that hard road. It was recently published in Thailand as a book entitled, ‘NO EASY ROAD: A Burmese Political Prisoner’s Story’.

We met frequently in Mae Sot over the coming months, with the invaluable assistance of Ko Myat Tu, a Burmese activist and former member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). He helped Thiha gather his memories and thoughts in English.

Thiha told us that he grew up the son of Burmese army colonel, Ba Tway. The family moved around as his father pursued his military career. He became increasingly politically active in the Burmese student opposition movement while studying history at Rangoon University, when he was arrested and detained twice in the infamous Insein prison.

In September 1987, he was arrested for organising student protests against the government’s economic policies. As a 21-year-old, he and 16 other student organizers had openly criticized the government for not consulting parliament before devaluing the country’s currency.

“I was detained under provisions in the law which allowed me to be detained but not charged,” he said during an interview for the book.

For almost five months he was held in the clothes he was arrested in. He described how he had to tear strips off his pants and shirt to clean his body after a bowel movement.

He was fed only rice and bean soup, with water to drink. He received a small piece of meat, once a week. The prisoners were kept in separate cells. He had no contact with his family or the other students.

It was also during his initial incarceration in Insein prison that he first experienced the brutal interrogation methods that Military Intelligence (MI) officers used on political prisoners.

He said he was beaten frequently in the first two months, during interrogations that sometimes lasted for days.

“They kicked me and hit me with their fists in the back and slapped me in the face. Sometimes I was standing and sometimes seated on the floor. My hands were handcuffed behind me and my head covered with a hood.”

He would speak more than once during the interviews about experiencing both white hot anger and agonizing terror during torture.

“It was like hell,” he said. “I was very angry. But, I was scared at the same time. I tried not to cry. I had to swallow the anger. I realized I couldn’t do anything in prison. But my friends and I would do more when we were released. I knew they must release me sooner or later.”

Even during this first imprisonment Thiha’s resolve was beginning to grow. “I knew I would have to do more to win democracy, to win freedom for my country.”

Ominously, he was assigned to a cell on death row, as political prisoners sometimes were as a form of psychological torture.

Thiha had no way to look into the future to see that he would return to death row in Insein Prison for what his captors hoped would be the last time.

“I didn’t know at that time I would be sentenced to death in 1991,” he said.

He was released in February 1988, but not for long. Only about a month later, two students were killed by police during a protest. “It was the first student blood spilled during our time,” he recalled.

In the next week over 200 students died at the hands of riot police and soldiers. “All the universities were closed. But we didn’t go home. We continued to organize protests. For the first time we shouted the word ‘democracy.’ ‘Down with the one party system. Bring democracy!’”

On 17 March 1988 he was arrested with 140 other students at a campus residence. “They beat me and all the students with clubs while they put us in the police vehicles. “ Their destination, once again, was Insein prison. “I was the only student who had been arrested and been held there before. For all the others it was their first time.”

The jailers knew him from his last stay. He became a leader because of his previous experience. The 141 students were finally released on July 7, 1988.

However, the nationwide anti-government uprisings that would take place a month later would put them on a collision course with the military government that would change the course of history for Burma, and for Thiha Yarzar, forever.

By 8 August 1988, the 23-year-old political activist and student leader had been appointed secretary of the National Student Union.

On that infamous day the people of Burma confronted the ruling military with a nationwide public demonstration.

Thiha led the people of Thingangyun Township, where he lived, on a seven-mile march to downtown Rangoon, carrying anti- government placards. The national and international media hovered to see what would happen. What they witnessed is marked indelibly on the minds and hearts of the Burmese people, and pro-democracy activists everywhere, forever.

Thiha recalled how the throngs of demonstrators walked into a wall of police and soldiers not long after they reached the area of the government offices near the downtown.

The soldiers and police opened fire on the unarmed protestors. It is estimated thousands died at the hands of the military, and many more were wounded.

Thiha was injured when a bullet grazed his knee while he stood on the roof of a car yelling at the soldiers to stop shooting with a bull horn.

The demonstrations grew in size nationwide, despite the casualties. Forty days later General Saw Maung took control of the country through a military coup. Thiha and many other young activists remained in hiding.

“We didn’t trust them,” he said. “We knew that after the coup we would be arrested. We could guess what would happen.”

With that in mind, Thiha met with his family two days later. He convinced them to disown him in a newspaper announcement.

“It was my idea, to protect them if they were interrogated by the police. I knew my parents loved me. My mom, Daw Tin Lay Myint, did not want to do it. She said, ‘Whatever happens we will face it.’ But, I said, ‘No Mom. It is the best thing to do.’ So, my mother cried.

“But, I said, ‘Don’t cry. I won’t die. Nobody can kill me because I have lots of friends.’

“Father told me not to raise a gun. ‘As a student you should be a politician,’ he said.

“But, my mother spoke to my father, saying, ‘He was right not to join the army when we asked him after the tenth grade. But, now may be the time to use a gun, if he wants to. He needs to decide for himself, in his own time.’

“Father said, ‘You do have to make your own choice. But you have to accept the consequences, whatever happens. You may die or you may live. But, whatever happens we are proud of you.’”

He said he didn’t tell them at the time what he was going to do.

 “But, they knew that most students who fled would choose to become part of the armed struggle for democracy.”

He hugged and kissed his father, mother and sister.

Two days later Thiha and some fellow students crossed illegally into Thailand. He had left Burma for the first time in his life.

“I kept thinking about my parents and the people in Rangoon,” he said.

But, after four months of military training with the ABSDF and the DAB (Democratic Alliance of Burma), Thiha re-entered Burma as an armed insurgent in September 1989.

“I was afraid of being caught. But, I wanted to see my family too.”

After re-entering Burma, Thiha had two secret meetings in 1990 with his mother at the pagoda in the next township to the family home.

He said he apologized to her because he knew she worried about him joining the armed struggle.

“I became a rebel,” he told her.

She said, “It’s OK. I taught you to think before you act. But, do what you think is right. You know better than I do about the students and the student movement. I won’t criticize you. Keep fighting for what you believe in.”

He did.

Paul Pickrem is the Features Editor of Burma News International and author of NO EASY ROAD: A Burmese Political Prisoner’s Story. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

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