I am a Burmese exile taking a near-permanent refuge in New York and Sydney. Here are my essays about Burma and anything else I feel like writing about. And posting the articles I like from selected sites. Bridging Burma to the world this Blog is more of a Politically-Oriented Literary Blog than a Plain News Blog or a Sophisticated Thoughts Blog.
(This is the Repost of Htun Aung Gyaw's "I do not want to visit a zoo anymore".)
Htun Aung Gyaw.
When I was seven, I thought that my parents were very stupid because they had a lot of money and they did not know how to spend it meaningfully. I loved bananas very much and I loved to go to the zoo and watch monkeys, lions, elephants, tigers, parrots and so on. It was my pleasure to watch those amazing creatures with different forms and colors.
Unfortunately, my parents only allowed me to eat two bananas per day and once per month to visit Rangoon Zoo. For me, it was not enough. I told myself, “When I grow up, I will eat many bananas and visit the Zoo every day.”
Time passed so quickly and I became an activist who tried to set things right because our country was under military rule since 1962. There was no freedom of expression, no freedom of organizing, no freedom of speech, no freedom of publication and no freedom to do business. In Burma, for 55 million people there were only four newspapers. The newspapers were totally controlled by the military junta and the junta used them as their propaganda tools. The government was all the time right and there were no questions about it.
I was one of the prominent student leaders in the 1974 U Thant uprising. U Thant was the only Burmese who was elected as the UN Secretary General and we were very proud of him. He passed away with lung cancer in 1974 in a New York hospital, and his coffin was flown back to Burma according to his wishes. However, the government ignored making it as a state funeral.
People were outraged and agitated, but they did not know how to respond to the government’s contempt. We Rangoon University students stepped in and snatched U Thant’s coffin, and brought it to the University compound on December 5, 1974. After five days, the government invaded the University and captured thousands of students. My friend Tin Maung Oo and I escaped before the raid.
First I refused to leave the University compound and told Tin I’d rather be captured then leave our comrades. He said, “He who fights and runs will fight another day.” He added that if we were captured we could not help others and ourselves, because as prisoners we would not have freedom and our physical bodies would be controlled by the wardens. The worst thing was we’d be forced to live like slaves in prison.
After six months, we made another anti-government demonstration on June 6th, 1975, to mark the one-year anniversary of the labor strike. After that, Tin Maung Oo was announced as a wanted fugitive, and two months later I was captured by the military unit number seven. The military intelligence officer, Captain Mg Mg Thwin, told me that we both were intellectuals and he wanted me to cooperate with him. He said, “The corporals are not educated. They only know how to torture people and they enjoy it. You have to choose the easy way or the hard way, think about it. Tell me, who are your associates? And what is your ideology? Who is the leader? Do you know Tin Maung Oo?”
I chose the painful way because I did not have a choice. I did not want to tell them who were my comrades and where they lived. If I did, they all would be captured and tortured. I heard how horrible the torture chamber was, how bad the cells were structured, and so on. I decided to keep my mouth shut and strongly believed that it was my duty to protect my comrades to continue the anti-government movement. I knew they would torture me if I did not cooperate with them and tell them what they wanted to know.
Finally, the captain gave up and allowed his subordinates to torture me. The person who entered the room was over 6 ft tall and had a thick body. He snarled at me and I smiled back. He was surprised to see me smile at him but my heart was pounding first. He told me that he could break my neck with one hand if I did not tell him who my comrades were.
I told him that I was a loner. I admitted that I participated in the anti government demonstrations but I did not have any associates. He suddenly slapped my face but I blocked his right arm and grabbed it with my left hand. He said, “Do you know martial arts?” I said, “No I don’t.” I lied to him. I had learned martial arts for a year and knew how to block the punches.
He called other members of his team and they tied my hands and hung up the rope into the ceiling. He brought a thick bamboo stick and started beating my butt with force. It was very painful but I did not want to give up and promised myself to do whatever it took, to give up even my life, to protect others. Every beating made me moan but I never screamed. They started beating me around 9pm. They changed persons but the bamboo stick was still beating my butt.
After four hours of non-stop beating and questioning, they were exhausted and told me that I was very stubborn but they would break me within a day. I told them I was a loner and I did it alone. But they did not believe me. Every beating on my butt made me dizzy and I wanted to vomit sometimes while they were torturing me. Sometimes captains came in and persuaded me that my life was worth living. Why didn’t I save my life by cooperating with them and tell them what they wanted? I refused.
Then, the big guy came in and beat me with a stick. This time the bamboo stick was broken on the far end. He grabbed the broken end and beat me with end which was once the handle. I heard the noise Whipped and I fell into the darkness.
When my consciousness came back first thing I saw was a yellow plain, then I saw the outline of the subjects near me, for example the table, the chair and persons. They slowly appeared as a black outline on the yellow plain. It was wonderful to see such a scene because I was an artist. I knew the outline, shade and shadows, so I smiled at what I saw and enjoyed it. Suddenly, someone yelled at me, “This motherfucker is still smiling,” and then I heard a Whipped noise and blacked out again.
When I gained consciousness my head was soaked with water, I was lying on the floor and my hands were not tied anymore. I heard the voice of the intelligence unit chief, “He is dying, stop torturing him and bring his associates from the prison and we will question him with them together, face to face.”
They brought my comrades who were captured before me and who promised me to keep their mouths shut, but they did not keep their promises. That was the reason the torturers knew about me and wanted to hear from me that I was one of the leaders. They wanted to know all our members’ names. When I saw my coward friends who were begging to the torturers, my morale went down and I admitted that I was a leader. But I never gave them my members’ names who were still at large. After I admitted that I was a leader and my role in the movement, they stopped torturing me.
Notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.
I was transferred to a notorious prison called Insein. Many people went insane in Insein prison and never recovered. Imagine eating a little rice every day, but rice peppered by bugs. Imagine learning not to “go” in the small pot left in your shadowy cell for nearly 24 hours, holding it in until you heard the guard coming to take away your waste and then hurrying it up. Everyone learned to do this, otherwise the coffin-like cell would be filled with the smell for many hours. And imagine tearing off the bottom of your prison clothes a little bit at a time for toilet paper, until your legs grew more and more exposed. Many of the prisoners did this, but I decided I preferred my legs to stay covered.
I was put in a cell, which was 8 feet long and 6 feet wide. I was in No.5 cell, which is for dead roll inmates. After three months, a warden opened my cell in the morning and brought me to the hall in the main jail entrance. I found myself standing in the front of five civilian judges. The warden ordered me to pull up my shirt and show my upper body, the judges looked at my body while I was circling in front of them. There were no tortured marks in my upper body. Then the warden ordered me to pull up my longi (it was a Burmese dress like a skirt, it is also called “Sarong” in Thai). I lifted the longi and showed my legs, there were no scars on it. Then one of the judges said, “Ok! We did not find any bruise and scars in his body, you can go now”.
Then I told them I have scars on my butt and I would show them. Suddenly, two judges quickly said, “No! you don’t need to” and waving their hands but they were too late, I lifted my sarong up to my hip and showed my butt which had deep black strike lines all over it and still swollen. When I faced back to the judges, all looked pale and their jaws were dropped.
I was sent directly to the notorious cell number six because of my misbehavior to the judges. I thought I won the battle on that day to expose how we were tortured badly. Number six cell is double door cell there were no air circulation. Some prisoners got asthma in that cell, some went insane because you cannot see any one, any tree or any living creatures. It was very hard to breath. They put me in this cell for 16 days and sent me back to my previous cell 5.
After a week I was sentenced to life by military tribunal without lawyers present. There were three judges; they were from the army, navy and air force. Before they sentenced me the judges asked, “Are you guilty or not?.” I asked them, “how do you define guilty?” Do you think against the government and demanding for democracy is guilty? The judges were agitated and one shouted at me, “Just say guilty or not , you do not have the right to question me”. I smiled back and said, “Not Guilty”. Then they made recession for half hour.
Then all our group members were called back to the military tribunal and one of the judges read the sentenced. I was sentenced to life with two others and the rest were sentenced to 10 to 15 years terms. Then the judge said, “What do you want to say?” no one said a word and all were sad except me. I stood up and said, “You guys sentenced me to life, but do you think your government will still life time in power?.
After my sentence I was moved to No.4 cell there I stayed for another eight months. Then I was transferred to the hall No.3 which was designed for political prisoners.
When I was in the cells, I walked back and forth in the cell 2700 steps per day and did push ups 90 times per day and squats 90 times a day. I encouraged myself to be strong and ready for the revolution. I did not want to give up and I never will.
I was released after five years because of the amnesty order 2/80 in 1980. All the political prisoners were released, including me. Before I was released, they told me that we were criminal not political prisoners, so we could only get reduced jail terms. Every day my parents and parents and family members of political prisoners waited outside the prison after the government announced that they gave general amnesty to all political prisoners.
But the government released criminals first and still maintained all political prisoners. They reduced two thirds of the jail term for all criminals and released them if they served one third of their jail term. They also calculated the jail terms of political prisoners as criminals and if the prisoners served the required jail term, they were released as criminals.
For me, I had a life sentence and I only served five years. I could not be released as a criminal because of my jail term. I asked the wardens why I was not released yet. They said I was a criminal. After 16 days of the amnesty order, finally I was released as a political prisoner at midnight. My parents waited for ten days in front of the prison for my release and after ten days they were heartbroken and went home.
When I arrived home I was surprised to see coconut trees in my compound. They were only 15 feet high when I was captured but now they were 25 feet tall and all other trees were so big and tall. I climbed the fence and jumped inside our compound. Then I rang the bell. My father woke up and asked, “Who is it?” I said, “Dad, I am home.” He ran down to the first floor but forgot the keys. Then my mother followed after him and threw the keys to my dad. We talked all night long until dawn.
I do not want to go to Zoo any more and understand that its animals and birds are lifetime prisoners like me in the prison. I understand the lions and tigers pacing back and forth as I did in the cell. Their lives are far worse than mine because they do not have a chance to be free again. One good thing is I still love to eat bananas but not many, only one or two sometimes, not every day.
(Now residing in USA Htun Aung Gyaw was the founder and the first Chairman of ABSDF (All Burma Students' Democratic Front) and also a prominent student leader of 1974 U Thant Uprising in Rangoon.)