Win Maw: 'Prison became my studio'

Win Maw was arrested in November 2007 after shooting footage of the September 2007 monk-led uprising that featured in the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ. The DVB video journalist spent more than four years in jail before his release in January, having already survived a six-year term between 1996 and 2002 for penning anti-regime songs. He tells DVB about his recent spell in prison, a time in which he was able to pursue music and build allegiances with other inmates.

You were arrested on 27 November 2007. Can you explain where and how that happened?

I was arrested by Military Affairs Security officials whose names I didn’t learn at Moon Bakery teashop on Sule Pagoda Road in downtown Rangoon. Then I think I was taken to 9 Miles [district in Rangoon], but I don’t know for sure as I was blindfolded.

Were you beaten or tortured whilst in interrogation?

Not extensively but it happened. I was interrogated by several different [government] organisations and I got punched in the head by officials I assume were from [Police] Special Branch for not giving the answers they wanted. But there are people with experience worse than mine – Myo Aung Naing, brother of Min Ko Naing, arrived in Insein Prison with both his shoulders dislocated.

And you were transferred to Kyaukphyu prison from Thandwe prison in Arakan state?

Yes. After my verdict was passed, I was sent straight to Thandwe prison without returning to Insein prison. Later, there was a reshuffling of officials in Thandwe and five of us were transferred to different prisons such as Butheedaung and Sittwe. I landed in Kyaukphyu [prison], Arakan state.

Could you cooperate with other prisoners?

I and U Myint Lwin [a cellmate] organised 10-day meditation retreats and donated books for other prisoners [in Thandwe] to read after negotiating with the prison’s chief. Also in [Thandwe] prison were journalists including Ko Zayar Oo who were jailed for teaching English to [the banned All Burma Federation of Students’ Union – ABFSU] members. With them, we organised English language and computer lessons for regular [criminal] inmates. The prison’s chief and the coordinating officer were decent people and we managed to work a lot to improve the prison through negotiations with them.

You were also sentenced in 1996 and spent six years in jail. How did that stint compare with your recent prison term? Are conditions better now?

Yes we can say this. The conditions were still rather bad in 1996 – political inmates were subjected to beatings and torture before our eyes. After the [International Committee for the Red Cross] was allowed to visit prisons in 1999, things improved gradually in areas such as the sanitation system, health care and medical assistance – pretty much everything. Back in 1996, we weren’t allowed to read any books, not even Buddhist mantra books, and inmates were not allowed to have a pen or a paper.

While serving your first jail term, you wrote the songs ‘Evil Guest’ which featured in [exile singer] Moon Aung’s ‘Battle for Peace’ album, and ‘Cherry’ which was in an album released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Did you get to write any news songs this time around?

Yes I did. In my first term, it wasn’t easy to get access to a guitar so had to make one myself but this time around in Thandwe, I requested prison officials for a guitar and the chief himself bought me one. After that, I was able to compose more songs and also teach my fellow inmates how to play the instrument.

What is the name of your new song?

There is this song named ‘We Shall Overcome’, a tribute to Martin Luther King. I translated the lyrics [into Burmese], made a Burmese cover of the song. Also there is a song in English, ‘Freedom from Fear’, inspired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous speech. We wrote this together with some students in Taungoo Prison and I did a Burmese version of that titled ‘Shin Than Lut Myauk Chin’ [Freedom]. Moreover, that song by [well-known singer] Connie that was aired on regular basis by DVB in 2007, I wrote that in Taungoo Prison. But they were pretty much just demo versions and were put up on the internet and sent to broadcasting stations by some friends. I have a plan to make finalised studio versions of the songs.

So you were a guitarist and then became a revolutionary who stood up against the military dictatorship. Then you went on to serve time in prison as a video journalist. What caused so many switches in life?

To make it short, every citizen has a responsibility [to bring about] democracy – guitarists too. We must make our call and take part in the revolution together to achieve what we want so our younger generations can enjoy its fruits in the future. It was more than I can bear to see – [attacks in 2007 on] the monks we revere – and this led me into media work with DVB. We did this so the world can know. We didn’t do this just for a journalism career but as for a duty for our country. It pained me to see the monks brutally cracked down upon – I couldn’t hold my tears when I was editing the news footages. I told this to my daughter and she mentioned it in her open letter to the President.

The documentary film ‘Burma VJ’, made with video footage you shot, became an international success and was nominated for Oscar but on the other hand, it ended in you being more harshly punished. How do you feel about this and your role in making that film?

Back then [in September 2007] we assigned our people into small teams to cover different locations – most of our shots were in Rangoon. The footage of the Japanese man getting shot was taken by [DVB video journalist] Aung Gyi. I was assigned to the [Shwedagon] Pagoda, some others at Ngwekyaryan [monstery] – all of the footage was used in the film. We did that for our country – to let the world know the unjust rule of the military junta. I am happy that the film became a success. I had my jail term extended and was begrudged by the government for it but so be it. It was more important to let the world witness the cruelty that ensued in our country and I feel an accomplishment with that duty.

What are your future plans? Will you go back to the music world and revive your Shwethanzin [Golden Melody] Band? Or will you continue as a video journalist?

My main profession is music so I will go ahead with music. When I was released from my first prison sentence, I wasn’t allowed to use the band name ‘Shwethanzin’ anymore so I formed a new band named ‘Alinka’ [Rhetoric] but the environment now has become more open and all my friends from the music world and the political world have been urging me to reclaim the old band name. We will perform under ‘Shwethanzin’ at the upcoming HIV/AIDS charity gig organised by [NLD member] Ma Phyu Phyu Thin. So music is my first priority and for the rest, I want to take a break for a while and be with my family. My father is now 89 years old. I need some time with my parents and my family – I’ve been away from my children in total for about 10 years over the course of my two jail terms and I want to spend some time with them for a while.


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