It has been said that George Orwell’s best book about Burma is not Burmese Days, but his dystopian master piece, 1984. If this analogy were to be carried forward, Burma’s Winston Smith may just reside in a refugee camp in western Thailand.
Soe Lwin is very much the product of a brutal ‘thought police’. At a young age both his parents were targeted by Burma’s military intelligence (MI). His mother was a teacher, perhaps the despot’s greatest threat. His father meanwhile was one of Burma’s many protesters who challenged the country’s rulers in the late 1980s.
Their thirst for change landed both of them in jail for spells of several years at a time when Soe Lwin, aged just 11, stayed with his grandmother. “I felt nothing at the time, I knew nothing about politics,” says Soe Lwin.
With his family’s activities, his parents release from jail and the troubles in the country, it was not long before Soe Lwin was engaged in distributing political, pro-democracy pamphlets with a group of fellow school students, some his mother’s pupils. “When my father was released he taught me about politics, what was right and wrong”.
When the knock came at the door three years later and it was him the MI asked for, 14-year-old Soe Lwin put it past even Burma’s authorities to jail someone of his age. On 24 April 1994, Soe Lwin was detained for the second time, having already been interrogated and briefly held in January of the same year.
“They came to my house early in the morning, I heard my father talking to some people. I was upstairs at the time; I heard them ask him ‘Where is your son?’”.
Shackled, hooded and defiant, he was taken to an interrogation centre in his native Tavoy, southern Burma. “At the time I wasn’t afraid of them…they asked me nothing at first. First they beat me, brutally, because I wasn’t afraid of them. I thought I was too young, so I thought I wouldn’t get put in prison”.
And so began what was to turn into six months of interrogation, a period when guards old enough to be his father would take turns at beating and interrogating him and his comrades, fellow teenagers.
“They beat me again and again, and I said no, I know nothing. Finally they kicked me in the ribs, breaking one of [them], and finally I passed out,” Soe Lwin says of his initial days in interrogation. “They beat me till they got tired. My whole body was bruised”
“The first questions were: ‘Who gave you the pamphlets? Do your parents force you to do politics and who are your friends co-operating in this case, distributing pamphlets on public places?”.
He suspects that one of the group “sang”, as he terms it – gave the game away and ,under deadly torture, confessed, implicating Soe Lwin as a leading figure in the group’s distribution network. “I didn’t confess, I didn’t tell anything. There was a girl among us; there was a total of eight of us, and finally she ‘sang’ – she told them everything”.
“One of my friends died in the interrogation centre; an eigth grade student. He was just 13, one year younger than me. Min Zaw Oo was his name. Originally he was from a village and he came to the town to go to school.”
In October of that year, the MI tortured Soe Lwin for the last time by sticking needles under his finger nails; a practice he testifies by displaying still disfigured nails. They took him to stand trial before a judge, now permanently deaf in one ear. On arrival in court, however, the judge refused to conduct the trial due to his abject physical condition. “My body was full of wounds,” he said, his adolescent body too broken and tortured even for a Burmese courtroom.
So the MI took him to the local jail where his torturers were again turned away, their captive again considered too battered to be held. He was finally hospitalised and kept there for a month before he stood trial, and was sentenced to 24 years. He spent a few days in Magwe jail before being transferred to Insein prison in Rangoon.
“When I entered the prison I wasn’t beaten again but, psychologically, I was attacked in so many ways”.
In the dystopian nightmare of Orwell’s book, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is finally ‘broken’; finally taught to respect authority by ‘room 101’. The concept has now entered the English language as a place where one is exposed to one’s worst fears, where one’s mind is purposefully attacked and traumatised to crack the dissident’s independence and spirit.
“I could not bear to be psychologically attacked, I wanted to be beaten. I couldn’t bare it. In interrogation I was used to being beaten; they would beat me till I was numb. In prison at night they asked me: ‘Are you afraid of ghosts?’ If I said yes, I was threatened at night; when I said I was not, they would bring a criminal outside my cell and beat him brutally before my eyes to intimidate me…I was verbally abused almost every day.”
The human spirit is perhaps honoured by death, honoured because its physical presence can be challenged by violence and aggression but once dead the spirit cannot be challenged. In the theatre of political control, the mind must be infiltrated, a ‘victory’ that cannot be won should the body cease to live. Unlike Orwell’s dark fantasies, the bludgeons of Than Shwe’s military intelligence seemingly clobber for the single principle of respecting authority.
Prison conditions were predictably dire for Soe Lwin, with only 15 minutes allowed outside the cell each day to shower. Food was poor; passed beneath the iron door. The only exercise was pacing up and down within the cell.
“From 1994 to 1999 I was in Insein prison. In 1999 I was transferred to Moulmein prison [in Burma’s eastern Mon state].”
In Moulmein, Soe Lwin met some rebel leaders from the Mon ethnic group. Committed doctors, they took Soe Lwin under their care and taught him. It is around this time that he started writing; after three years of having his will crushed, his mind destroyed by the prison conditions, his intellect flowered again in the form of poetry;
By one mishap,
life can be lost
In this place,
for how long
for how far
will one stay and where to go?
Knowing no one here
Breathe the air here
straight in to the lung
Only when I get to the town,
Will I throw up this air
and inform of the issues of this place.
And so the years went by. Now with greater purpose, Soe Lwin entered his adult years behind bars, seeing out his youth with the guidance of fellow prisoners of conscience; seeing out a youth bereft of the formative experiences of coming of age and the initiations that characterise this time of our lives: the nascent freedoms, the innocence and expansion of horizons.
But Soe Lwin’s tale is far from unique. Kyaw Hsan is a new arrival, struggling to find his way in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
As a child he studied at a monastic school in Rangoon. In similar fashion to Soe Lwin, his studies were punctured by the anxiety of current affairs in Burma and the political stranglehold on the country. Friends at school had a small group who would meet and roam the city distributing leaflets of news from exiled media groups and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Often a pile of leaflets was left on the top of a bus, so as the vehicle drove through the streets the pile of pro-democracy ‘rags’ would flutter down to those passing by, as innocently as freshly fallen rain.
An NLD meeting changed everything. On the 16 September 2000, at the second anniversary of the Committee Representing the Peoples’ Parliament (CRPP), activists attempted to celebrate at the NLD office in Rangoon. Very few MPs made it, but Kyaw Hsan was among several hundred people attempting to gather to honour a people’s parliament. Military Intelligence waited outside.
“I tried to escape through Rangoon [after the meeting] and the police followed me,” he says of the day his freedom was lost and his youth all but ceased. “I was running for two or three hours. They caught me and cuffed me; they covered my head and drove me to a navy base.”
Kyaw Hsan was 15, and he has not seen his mother since. She lives in a small town near Sittwe in western Burma. On that day he recalls being beaten severely by multiple policemen, who used the butts of their rifles to beat him until he lost consciousness.
He was interrogated for a month; a month of solitary confinement and regular torture, with wild claims being put to the 15-year-old about him having connections with “international groups”.
“Finally you cannot deny any longer. At three or four o’clock in the morning, there would be two or three people beating you in your small room,” he says.
Roughly three years into his sentence, news reached the peeling walls of Insein jail of the re-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader. Kyaw Hsan was amongst hundreds of prisoners who protested, their tortured spirits pressing at the bars, as Burma’s democracy icon was once again detained.
And for his troubles, for demonstrating for the leader elect, he was confined to ‘special treatment’. A time-honoured practice was thrown Kyaw Hsan’s way, like the African slaves of old or the inmates in Pol Pot’s S-21 torture centre. He and his comrades were shackled together, lying along the wet floor. In one inch of fetid water, Burma’s dreamers were left for 32 days without respite. Analogies of animals go so far, but the constant damp conditions resulted in tuberculosis, an abhorrent affliction skipping cruelly in tandem with tyranny.
Life goes on
But Soe Lwin, despite the reflectiveness of his poetry and the company of fellow exiled dissidents, has no sense of forgiveness for the crimes committed against him that have sapped his youth.
He tells his story from a hut on the fringes of his home country in the border refugee camp of Umpium Mai, but he is not registered here and so does not receive the rations or any other benefits that refugees receive; he is effectively stateless.
After 15 years of detention, Soe Lwin was released and returned home, but the very next day the thud of military intelligence came at the door once more. His father was threatened for trying to organise the community to upgrade the rutted mud track that ran outside their house.
Soe Lwin’s life meanwhile was haunted by his status as a ‘dissident’. He says that former friends would not associate with him. He recalls sitting alone in the local tea shop, former friends at nearby tables and potential informers at others.
This miserable home-coming induced Soe Lwin to embrace his status as a dissident and seek his Mon comrades that he had made in jail, the doctors who had taught and assisted him whilst in detention.
Kyaw Hsan faired no easier. On release from jail his health was so bad, stricken as he was with tuberculosis, that he spent a further year quarantined in a hospital. On recovering he left for his grandfather’s house in Rangoon and found similarly that his former friends were aloof or simply not amenable. He sought to return to his studies and, after several months, his former college was visited by MI who informed the institution that, being a former prisoner, they could not let him sit his exams.
He describes this time as one in which he became increasingly withdrawn, recalling his grandfather and visitors attempting to coax conversation out of him. Finally his grandfather saw fit to tell Kyaw Hsan that his hopes lay elsewhere, beyond his homeland; a homeland that now resembles a jail.
The notion of innocence is broadly recognised and associated with childhood. Whilst child labour, even if it be in armed services, does not innately challenge innocence, it has a practical element that is often a result of poverty. The jailing and torture of minors, who in most contexts are not even considered legally liable, is a direct and violent rejection of most notions of innocence.
Like Orwell’s work, a brutal attempt at mind control, the only way that such minor crimes could induce lethal torture and sentences longer than murderers receive in many instances is a fear of the free will; a will deemed so threatening that it must be crushed at such a formative age.
How rational such a fear is, is hard to say. Indoctrination at an early age is a hallmark of not just totalitarian societies, but a huge and controversial issue in ‘freer’ societies where manipulation of the young is a multi-billion dollar industry.
In any case, Burma’s totalitarian ‘hard coercion’ has existed for almost half a century, and has resulted in a drying-up of a once intellectually vibrant society which is now shorn of education; a result of study being viewed as ‘threatening’. The stunting of such institutions diminishes year after year any hopes of redemption and an end to such practices, as fear is engrained deeper and deeper.
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” – G. Orwell