On his birthday, 25 December 1989, 24 year old freedom fighter Thiha Yarzar married 19-year-old Htway Htway Oo, the daughter of a politician who allowed Thiha to hide in his home while on a mission. On 1 October 1990, she gave birth to their daughter, who was given the name Tone Tone by the family.
However, the diverging roles of a soldier in the armed struggle for democracy and a father to Tone Tone would eventually create a tension inside Thiha that would cause him great turmoil for many years.
On 17 January 1991, when Tone Tone was just three months old, Thiha was captured in South Okkalapa Township in Rangoon, while hiding in a safe house awaiting orders from his commanders.
His 15-year-old nephew and another colleague had given information under torture which made his capture possible.
The day of his capture he was suffering horribly from a high fever caused by malaria. As the authorities closed in on him, Thiha sensed he was in grave danger but was too sick to move quickly.
They placed a black hood over his head and led him through the crowd gathered outside the house into a waiting car.
“I thought about how I could escape,” he said, “but I could do nothing. I knew I would face horrible torture and I might die. I could guess what they might do to me. I was lucky I didn’t go mad the last time they tortured me.”
Thiha Yarzar was twenty-five years old.
After being interrogated he was chained to the wall in a dark room.
“I didn’t know if it was day or night,” he remembered.
“I was thinking about my three month old daughter and Pa and Ma and my friends. But, I knew it was no good to think. I have to face the torture.
“I will protect myself – my mind, soul and spirit – because I can’t protect my body.
“If I give into fear I will lose my reputation. So, I will resist or my daughter and my family will have to live knowing that their father and their son was a traitor, and they would suffer because others would be arrested and tortured because of me.”
After more interrogation on the second day he asked the guards for water.
“They led me blindfolded and handcuffed to a small toilet down the hall. They opened the door and pushed me in, saying, ‘You can drink all the water you want.’
“I had no choice but to drink the water in the toilet.
“From that day onward, for more than a month, whenever I was thirsty they took me to drink from the water in the toilet.”
The third night, the torture began.
He was tied to a pole in the standing position. His head was covered by a hood.
Three or four Military Intelligence officers beat him for about an hour.
“At first they hit me with their fists on my face and in my ribs and stomach. When they untied my hands, I was bleeding from my nose and mouth.
“I was filled with tension from rage. They were cowards.
“‘Let me see you. I want to know who you are,’ I screamed at them. ‘It’s not man’s work to beat somebody blindfolded.’
“They laughed at me.”
They untied his hands. But, then he felt a stick strike him across the shins and he fell to the floor.
“They kicked me all over, in the chest, back, hips and stomach.”
He was then taken to another room where he was seated on a stool with his hands handcuffed behind him.
They asked more questions about the location of weapons and his comrades.
He said he told them he didn’t know where any weapons were and all his comrades were back in Thailand.
They kicked him off the stool on to the floor and beat him and kicked him all over his body, before taking him back to the dark room.
“I thought, ‘Do humans act like this?’ They treated me like an animal. But, they were the animals. Are they human?”
He said he was losing his sense of time in the dark room, but could hear guards talking to each other out in the hall and could deduce if it was night or day.
“It was like a nightmare. After being beaten, I was numb. I didn’t know where I was.
“My mind was numb too. I didn’t go unconscious. I felt like I was floating in the air.”
The next morning he was taken to another interrogation center in a different location. He was fed rice and boiled egg, and given more toilet water.
That night they began to question him for about 24 hours, non-stop, with interrogators working in pairs for two hour shifts. The questioning once again centered on weapons and comrades. He was given no food and drank only toilet water.
“By that time the toilet water seemed very delicious because I needed water. I was in the same clothes I was arrested in. They were filthy. My whole body was sticky and sweaty and dirty.”
That night he learned about the torture method called “the cradle”.
He was suspended horizontally between two poles about waist high. He was blindfolded and faced upward toward the ceiling.
One Military Intelligence officer stood beside his head, pouring water on his face and slapping him in the face.
Meanwhile, two others took turns kicking him in the side and legs.
“I was choking. I could not breathe. And I swung back and forth between the two kicking me, like I was in a cradle.
“I wanted to scream. But, I controlled myself. I did not want to show them my fear and my rage. I swallowed my voice. I did not want them to think of me as a coward.”
He recalls using Buddhist meditation techniques to control his mind and to deal with the pain.
“It lasted about two hours, but I didn’t give them any new information. I only told them things they already knew.”
He said he drew on his previous experiences being tortured.
“I knew how to answer them. But, there wasn’t as much pain to deal with the first two times. I knew if I gave them any information at all it would be worse for me because they would only torture me more. It’s better not to give them any information at all.”
He also benefited from the experience of other pro-democracy activists who had been tortured by the government before his time.
He said some of the politicians who were interrogated and tortured after the death of former UN Secretary-General U Thant in 1974 talked to him about it.
“They told me stories about how they were tortured when I was young. Now, it was my turn.”
During the torture the guards talked about the likelihood of him being given a death sentence.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to get a death sentence and die in the end, or, maybe they will kill me here while they torture me.
“I am going to die in the end anyway so I’ll fight now and die with dignity now. I will not answer them.’”
He recalls hearing the guards trying to restrain each other because if they went too far with the torture and killed him, they would not get any information.
They were frustrated by his silence.
The torture continued for about a month as Thiha was transferred to various Military Intelligence and Special Branch Police interrogation centers.
“It was like I was a ball, kicked from one to the other.”
The game ended when the ball came to rest, yet again, on death row at Insein prison on 7 March 1991, following a one-day trial in a military court. He had appeared before a panel of three military colonels, all in full uniform. He stood before them in the filthy clothes he was arrested in almost three months earlier.
There was no lawyer present to speak in his defense. He hadn’t spoken to a lawyer since being arrested on 17 January.
The prosecutor read the charges against him.
He was charged with undermining the country’s peace and stability, and was convicted of High Treason.
“It was my country, but not my government,” he said of the trial. “There was no legitimacy.”
He decided that same day not to appeal the sentence.
“They were the terrorists, not I. I decided I would not give in and kneel before them. It was useless. I would be a laughing stock. I will maintain my dignity.”
The 25-year-old convicted terrorist was driven by car to Insein prison. He remembered his thoughts about how he would be executed during the drive.
“How would they kill me? Hanging possibly… But, I’d rather be shot in the head. There have been many revolutionaries who have been executed by tyrants and dictators, who died calmly and with dignity. I’ll do the same. Maybe it’s my turn. I will follow them.”
He said he thought about singing a revolutionary song at his execution.
“I got my relief. I was ready to die,” he said. “I never thought about it again.”
This time, Thiha Yarzar was housed in cell 51 on Insein prison’s death row, in a block of 60 white concrete cells with iron bars for a door. There was nothing inside but a thin bamboo mat for a bed and two ceramic bowls for a toilet.
Life for those on death row was about waiting to die. No one had any idea how long they would remain there or when they would actually be executed.
At least the filthy old clothes he had worn since his arrest were gone. Thiha now wore a prison uniform made up of a white short-sleeved shirt with a collar, and a white longyi. Every Friday he was allowed two visitors from his family. His wife, mother and sister would try to comfort him.
“They cried and encouraged me. But I said, ‘I’m okay, you be careful.’”
His wife was arrested once after visiting him. Her family had to sell the small pickled tea shop they operated because people were afraid to buy from them.
His wife was a student. She was supported by her parents and his family as well. Some sympathetic politicians secretly helped the family financially.
Eventually, his father and brother in law lost their careers in the military. His mother lost her position as a teacher.
Inside, Thiha had his share of challenges too. He and other prisoners were caught smuggling information to BBC Radio about prison conditions. They were sent to live in punishment cells with military dogs housed on site. He remembers they were kept in shackles and heard the sounds of other prisoners being beaten every day. But they made the best of their predicament.
“After a week we and the dogs became very friendly. So, we could eat their meat. The dogs had better food. We only had rice to eat.”
In June 1994 he was transferred to Taungoo Prison, Bago division, after three years in Insein. The transfer came just before other prisoners were caught with the cell phones and radios. They received lengthy sentences.
Thiha recounted how prison food was usually so bad they tried not to eat it. Guards were sadistic and brutal. Prisoners were forced to shout, “I am not human. I am just a prisoner,” while being punished.
He said prison staff organized prostitution and sold drugs to make money. Female staff had sex for money. Child soldiers who tried to desert but were recaptured and sent to prison were sold to other prisoners and staff for sex by guards eager to make more money.
Thiha wanted those conditions changed and he and others used money given by outside supporters to bribe guards to buy a shortwave radio and two cell phones they used to pass information about the conditions inside the prison to the outside world.
“Everyone has a responsibility for democracy and human rights, even me as a prisoner. I was still young.”
Four years later, he went on a hunger strike to protest the authorities’ decision not to release him early, after they had said they would.
In 1997, after six years on death row, Thiha’s sentence was reduced to 10 years. He was told he would be released within months. But two days later it was increased to 20 years.
During the hunger strike he was forced to receive nourishment from a glucose drip and transferred to Kalay prison in western Burma, near the India border. The weather there was known for its extremes of hot and cold, and malaria was rampant.
“Political prisoners who caused problems in other prisons were transferred to Kalay. It was a bad situation. Almost every prisoner and staff got malaria frequently and both prisoners and staff died from the disease.”
He said he got malaria in Kalay 30 times in four years – almost monthly. He was hospitalized three times.
He recounted the periods of suffering through bouts of high fever, chills and shivering, aching bones and body, vomiting, weight loss and terrible headaches.
“I was losing my mind. I had a fever of 106 degrees. I felt alone, isolated and suffered terribly with the disease. I cried. It was easier to deal with the torture than the malaria. It was terrible.”
During an interview, he showed a copy of a document stating the Red Cross visited him in Kalay prison on 29 March 2000 and 12 December 2001.
He said local doctors and Red Cross officials recommended his transfer to a prison with a permanent physician and a hospital. Military Intelligence refused. “They said, ‘Let him stay and die here in Kalay.’”
At that time he joined in a hunger strike with 10 other prisoners, including his friend Khun Myint Tun, who is today an MP and Labor Minister of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the exiled government formed by the National League for Democracy after its 1990 election victory in Burma.
“Our demand was to release all political prisoners unconditionally,” he said. “It was as if we had no rights. We were treated like animals, not like human beings. I was full of anger. I was becoming mentally ill… crazy.”
He and Khun Myint Tun went 21 days without food, 18 days without water. On day 21, they fell unconscious and were given a drip and flown to Taunggyi township prison.
Twenty-five days later Thiha was sent to Mai Sat prison, in eastern Shan state. He was covered with a hood and beaten on arrival, dragged to solitary confinement, and put in a concrete cell with no furniture and no mattress.
But the spark of activism had not died out completely, even after all this time and suffering.
“They could destroy our body. But, they couldn’t control our mind, our soul or our spirits in prison. The oppression only caused us – forced us – to fight back.”
Thiha did fight back, but not only for his own cause.
One morning he overheard guards mistreating a prisoner in another section of the prison he could not see. The prisoner was forced to kneel in the hot sun for two hours, while shouting, “I’m not human. I’m a prisoner!” His crime was stealing some vegetables.
“Thiha shouted back from his cell, ‘Hey! Stop it! I am also a prisoner, but, I am human’.”
He continued his protest until the prison’s Head Jailer came and spoke to him, to quiet him down. The Jailer told the guards to stop the practice.
However, during six years of isolation in Mai Sat Prison he also had to find ways to fight against gnawing depression.
During the daytime he could see a mountain in the distance if he leaned against the wall a certain way in a standing position. He still remembers how beautiful that mountain was to him.
“It was green, with lots of trees. I loved those trees. I imagined strolling in that forest under the shade of those trees. I touched them and hugged them. I ran like a child amongst them.”
His imagination acted as a magic carpet.
“Sometimes I couldn’t sleep day or night, for three or four days. Then, I would sleep for 24 hours, with no food. Sitting on the bed and leaning against the wall, I imagined the wall in front of me was a cinema screen. I saw my life. I saw my friends. I imagined watching Sean Connery as 007 and Jean-Claude Van Damme. I saw lots of movies on that wall.”
When bored, he sat with his legs through the bars of the cell door and hugged the bars with his arms. He remembers looking up at the sky and talking to the insects and sharing rice with the birds.
“I wanted to fly like a bug,” he said. “At night, the stars and the moon were my companions. But, my sky was very small because of the size of my window. I could just see thirteen stars. But, those thirteen stars were my best friends. I could not survive without the stars, the moon, the bugs and birds and those trees on that mountain.”
He asked favors of his companions, the bugs and the birds.
“Talk to me. Say, ‘Hello’, to my daughter,” he remembers asking them. “Sometimes the situation was so depressing. I wanted to talk to my daughter. I talked with the bugs in my cell and talked with the stars about her.”
He recounted the experience of being isolated so long.
“The sameness, the routine, is depressing. I have only the present – no past and no future.” He remembered, “I sang at night to comfort myself.”
He used pain killers and diarrhea pills as chalk, to write poetry on the floor and walls.
“My best poem was for my daughter,” he said, passing me a handwritten copy of the poem. It is entitled, “Perfect Moment”:
Just a drop of love
Spilt from my beloved daughter’s heart
Makes the whole world full of celebration.
I walk in the clouds.
The drum in my chest is
Beating itself aloud.
The breeze is giggling.
The trees are waving their hands.
Even the rainbow
Becomes a bridge of gold.
She calls me Daddy.
I believe that
Tonight will be starry.
Just a drop of love
Spilt from my beloved daughter’s heart
Makes me feel happiness that I have never had.
The poem was written on Tone Tone’s sixteenth birthday as his present to her. It was also the day he received a letter from her in which she called him “Daddy” for the first time.
She was three months old when he was arrested and Thiha was worried they would not be able to make up for all the lost time.
But some of Thiha’s friends, who were also student activists and political prisoners, including the prominent student leader, Min Ko Naing, who had just finished serving a 16-year sentence, intervened to help him begin to develop a relationship with her.
He said they wrote to him and said, “Don’t worry. We will take care of your daughter. We will care for her as if she were our own.”
“They were worried she had no feelings for me,” Thiha said. “They explained my story to her and encouraged her to contact me. They gave her money and a school uniform. They helped a lot. They helped me cure my mental illness about my daughter.”
He remembered his excitement when she wrote to him for the first time.
“I am now sixteen years old,” she wrote. “I am a tenth grade student. Take care of yourself.”
“I read it again and again,” he said.
She wrote again, three months after he replied to that first letter.
“Take care. I am ok. Now, I am learning about computers,” she said.
But, it was the word “Daddy” in her third letter that was like a miracle drug to Thiha.
“I kept it in my shirt pocket and read it again and again,” he said. “That night I wrote the poem.”
However, he began to worry about his inability to care for Tone Tone, even if he were to be released some day.
“I started to worry about my relationship with my daughter. She said she wanted to go slow with the relationship. But, when would I be released? And, what would I do for a living? Could I pay for her education?”
That worry intensified when his friends, who had been so helpful to him and his daughter, were arrested again during the Saffron Revolution in September 2007.
Thiha lost all contact again with Tone Tone after that.
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].