Monday, March 12, 2012

When I was a Lousy Millionaire by Htein Lin

(By Artist Htein Lin /Translated By Aye Aye Soe Win & Ohm Mar, LINKER Blog.)

A title like the one that heads up this article is the sort of phrase you pull out of the bag in a debating contest. You then have to fill the allotted time with whatever comes to mind, regardless of whether it is true or not. But what I am going to tell you now is no product of my imagination. It is a tale of when I genuinely was a lousy millionaire.

I imagine that by now you are wondering what I, Artist Htein Lin, might be about to reveal about my life as a lousy millionaire. Perhaps a tale of wealth accrued in a logging deal? A lucky gem strike? Although those of you who know me well are probably already expecting me to recount you a crazy mixed up nonsense tale.

Perhaps. But mine is not a story of a man whose wealth derives from monetary millions. My millionaire riches can be attributed to the abundance of lice on my head. A bit like the old Maung Wunna song in the movies, that we used to tease each other by changing the words:

“Abundant, abundant,
The hair of my love
Abundant with lice.”

But before I start my tale of lice, I want to expound on the cultural aspects of community delousing.

Ever since reading Ket Ma’s essay on head lice about six months ago, I’ve been itching to write this piece. Even as I read her article on lice, I already found myself scratching the itch.

You may remember those watercolour cartoons that world-famous Burmese artist U Paw O Thet would often paint, of a line of women sitting one behind one another searching for lice on each other’s heads. When we were young, you might also remember those scenes from films featuring gossiping women, some sitting with just a longyi pulled up tight above their breasts, catching and killing lice while enjoying a good chat.

During afternoons in my village when I was young, I would also see these women, under the shade of the massive tamarind trees, sitting in a line with their hair loose, picking through one another’s heads to remove the lice. A really good louse-catcher could enjoy immense popularity in the village. And since she would be asked for her services by so many households, she would also be a fine source of news. Which is why some would go to the lice-lines simply because they had an itch for the latest gossip.

Nowadays, the equivalent is go to go online. Our prize lice-catcher is probably blogger Dr. Lwan Swe who compiles news from all sources and has even more of a queue of lice-chasing women logged in than our old village champion.

In those days, a family could live off just one person’s salary. But nowadays, lice-catching habits are dying out in the villages. In fact I have been thinking of organizing a campaign on Facebook or Twitter to call on the Burmese authorities to do something to safeguard this important element of our traditional culture and prevent it from disappearing altogether. But on reflection I have concluded that posting such a frivolous matter on my Facebook page might cause an uproar. So I have dropped the idea.

I vividly remember my friend Htay Yi who sat front of me in 4th Standard, and whose head was literally teeming with what seemed like a million lice moving over his head. The mere sight of them crawling made me want to start scratching, but it didn’t seem to bother Htay Yi at all.  When I later heard the saying “If you are thick with lice, you lose the desire to itch”, I would always see in my mind’s eye the head of my school friend Htay Yi, and think to myself, how true!

Later, when I was in middle school I learned that there were lice hiding out in my head too. On school holidays, my mother would tell me to comb through my hair with a fine-tooth bamboo comb. First I would spread out the middle pages of an exercise book or a newspaper and then bend over it and comb through my hair. The poor suffering lice were unable to cling on to my hair and would pop out one after another onto the newspaper.  My little sister and I would compete to see who had the most. Then we would kill them by squashing them with our thumbs, and the popping sound as they departed this earth encouraged us to look for even more. 

But later I came across a painting in our village temple showing a special chamber in hell for those who had killed lice in their previous lives. That painting brought me out in a cold sweat and after that, I would pick up the paper with the lice and shook them off round the back of our house

In those days, when I had combed out a lot of lice, I would run delightedly to my grandmother to show her and she would tell me nostalgically her stories of the enormous white body lice they had enjoyed under the Japanese occupation when they had no soap.  When I heard her stories, instead of feeling happy that I had not been alive at a time like that, I felt jealous that I had missed out.  Perhaps it was such sentiments that made my subsequent up-close and personal contact with body lice inevitable.

My encounter with Mr Golden Body-louse happened while I was living at the ABSDF (North) camp in Pajawng, adjacent to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Headquarters in Laizin, close to the Chinese border. About seventy of us were being held in a detention camp, and tortured and mistreated, accused of being sent by the government as spies. We were being held in a so-called prison, but it was little more than a hut with a bare earth floor, woven bamboo panels for walls, and Chinese tarred sheets for a roof.

As a result, we were restrained, day and night, either in wooden stocks or with our feet in irons. At night, we would lie down and before we went to sleep, our hands were manacled behind our backs, and we were chained together and tightly blind-folded. Our bedding consisted of tarred sheets scattered on bare Mother Earth. Sometimes, we had to entertain the leadership of the group detaining us, or the security guards, by singing songs, to order. And then once we were on the ground in a sleeping position, no one could move an inch the whole night.

If you woke up in the middle of night to pee, you had to do it precisely into the empty glucose bottles at your feet and then go back to sleep.  In the morning, we would empty the urine bottles and the guards would perform a roll-call. Anyone they regarded as having moved around too much at night would be made to lie face down on the bare earth. Then either the ‘prison governor’ or one of the more brutal guards would begin their warm-up exercises for the morning, grasping a 3in diameter club with both hands, which would then visit that person’s backs or ribs,  according to the instructions.

But by then such beatings were no more than our daily bread. It felt like child’s play, compared to what we had experienced in the earlier phase of our detention at the hell of the interrogation center, where we had experienced beating, cuts with a knife, burns, electric shocks, and drowning.

Under torture in that interrogation hell we had lost Ko Tin Maung Aye from Katha, political adviser and Beijing veteran U Sein, Ko Pyi Soe Naing from Sanchaung and Ko Soe Gyi. Some of us wanted to stay alive. So, through gritted teeth, we agreed with our interrogators that we were not student revolutionaries but Military Intelligence spies. For those of us who had survived that episode, these morning beatings were not so terrible any more.

Although like me, they had escaped with their lives, some had sacrificed parts of their bodies. As a result our prison cell stank of blood, worse than a meat market. We had with us Ko Cho Gyi, previously in charge of underground activities inside Burma whose  hand had been cut off at the wrist (later he was to be beheaded), and Ko Aung Phoe whose fingers had been chopped off.

Also with us was student leader Ko Tun Aung Kyaw who had been tortured by having burning metal nails inserted into his heels. In addition to the stench of others wounds, I had my own raw cuts and rough stitches in my head.  So for me, there was nothing unusual any more in having clothes which reeked of blood.

The problem was that we couldn’t get rid of our clothes as we had nothing to change into. Pajawng camp was at 7,000 feet, and the winters there were cold enough to freeze your bones. So without any other clothing, beyond an occasional thin blanket to share between two people, there was no way that we could afford to get rid of our blood-stained clothes while we were having to sleep on the ground. Even with four layers of clothes, the freezing mountain wind blew through the bamboo walls, and exacerbated the pain of our bruised and broken bones.

Since our arrest and detention we had not been permitted a chance to wash, and we did not dare ask for it in case we invited a further beating. Eventually, our clothes dried out, leaving them stained and starched with a combination of dirt and blood and urine. Around that time, we discovered that we had already formed a close relationship with the body lice although we had no idea from whence they came or when they had arrived on our bodies.

Although it might have been expected that we would have realized exactly when and with whom the body lice had first appeared, in those days we were constantly waiting, day and night, in fear of being called for a further beating, a burning or an interrogation under electric shock. When we weren’t being tortured, we were forced to do hard labour, like cattle. So we weren’t paying much attention to anything else.

Until one day, one of us announced that he had got body lice. And so, in the next work break, we all took off our shirts, and searched down the seams for these big white lice, which we particularly found in the seams around the armpits.

The human mind is a strange thing. My first reaction on discovering I had these disgusting and harmful creatures living on me was to congratulate myself that now I too was lucky enough to experience those same body lice my grandmother  had hosted during the Japanese occupation.  But my delight was short-lived. When night came, the lice began to show their true colours. The problem was that, although their biting was intolerable, as I mentioned before our hands were tied, and we had to ask for permission to wriggle even a little. I was reminded of the Saing Hti Saing song about exhaustion without relief, but in this case I changed the words to itching without relief.

Actually some of my imprisoned comrades had been suffering regular beatings each morning for some time on the supposed grounds that they had been rolling and wriggling around at night without first seeking permission. They didn’t even know whether they truly had moved, but still they received these senseless thrashings. Every morning, the list of allegedly wriggling prisoners would be read. But now we had the answer. The reason for our wriggling was those beasts inside our clothes.

The human mind is indeed a strange thing. It was only that first night after we discovered that we had lice that we could feel them biting as we lay down in our beds.  Then we experienced a previously unimaginable agony of itching and biting through all our layers of clothes. For that night, it appeared that the body lice battalion had begun to march on the offensive against us.

As I have already mentioned, our feet were shackled and our hands were manacled behind our backs, so changing position and rolling around in this state was not an option. It reminded me of the pigs I had seen at the train station when I was young. Since we were also tightly blindfolded, we had developed a strong sense of night-hearing to allow us to know who was being taken out for a beating and interrogation, and who had entered the room. There would be nights when they called someone for interrogation and the torture went too far, so they never returned. Our sharp ears brought us the news. Such was life at that time.

If I tell you everything we experienced you might start to wonder if I am exaggerating. But I genuinely believe that with practice and concentration, I could actually hear the sound of the victorious army of lice on the move as it marched over my skin. And as for the sound of their biting ……

They seemed to know. These blood-sucking vultures seemed to know only too well that we victims were unable to retaliate. So each night, our bodies became their most delicious feast and they picked the dishes they wanted all night long. Prior to our discovery of them, the aches and pain had been nothing remarkable.  But from then on, despite or perhaps because we had hands bound at the wrist, we all developed an uncontrollable urge to move to relieve our itching.

As we concentrated on the itch, we tried to move and squash them against the floor of the hut. One by one each of us sought permission to shift our bodies a little. It became critical for each of us to ask to move, but it felt like an age before I was able to take my turn, and even before my turn was over, the next person was asking. And as I have told you, the guards were a mixed bunch.  The eventual result was that, come morning, we lined up in the yard and without bothering to speak, the guards all took their turns to beat us. It didn’t matter whether the previous night you had moved or not. Everyone was made to lie on their stomachs and take their full dose of medicine.

It got to the point where we became more concerned about out new enemy, the hordes of lice, than we about the devils who had arrested, tortured and interrogated us.  Every night, we would wait for our turn to move.  And the lice were smart. They would descend from their hideouts in our armpits and march down our arms towards our manacled wrists for a feed. We would be unable to survive without moving around at night, to the point where we has no option but to conclude that it would be better to let them beat us up in the morning. By that time, the fight to rid ourselves of the new louse enemy had assumed an importance above all others.

The first line of defence was established whenever we came back from hard labour. We would sit down in the yard in front of the cell and use that time to seek permission to take off all our clothes except for the last layer and hunt the body lice down every seam of our clothing to exact our revenge. Then we would put our clothes back on, since the cold made it impossible not to wear them.

It was quite easy to find those big white lice in our khaki army uniforms, like grains of rice clinging to the seams. When they knew we were after them, they ran for cover. But our fingers had been itching for revenge for so many nights. So we released them from their lives, and piles of bodies built up everywhere.  Unfortunately we never had the time to hunt them all down and finish the job completely. Nor could we hunt every day. So nothing changed and we still had to put up with the routine of those daily beatings and nightly bitings.

As a result of this life we led, one day one of us made a suggestion. He proposed that before we went to bed and had our hands bound, we should take off our innermost layer and put it on outside. He reasoned that it was in the last layer of the shirt that the lice had been hiding. If we put this layer on the top, the lice might be fooled. It did not work. The earlier part of the night seemed to go better, but as the hours progressed, the lice resumed their attack and paid us back with interest. We suffered greatly as they launched into these creatures who had dared to trick them. But we also vowed then to exert our crushing revenge when the time was ripe. 

The winter was overwhelmingly cold and icy, and the harsh beatings and amputations under interrogation, coupled with the attacks by the blood-suckers, put the finishing touch of cruelty which led to the premature and permanent departure of some of our comrades.before the ice had melted.

By that stage, we were getting used to our hell. So one day, one of my fellow prisoners, Ko Myint Thein, decided to take the risk of putting a special proposal to the guards. He asked if we could bath in the stream which ran down the mountainside where the ice had now melted, and whether we could have our clothes boiled while we did so.

By that stage, we had gone four months without washing. Eventually, agreement was given that we could hold our bathing ritual under strict and tightened security. The ceremony kicked off at about ten in the morning. The sun was rising. The location was a stream, about four feet wide with one foot deep of melt-water which ran between our hill and the famous Assam Hill. The hill had got its name some time ago, after some Assamese soldiers who had come from India for training there had been beheaded by the KIA for their failure to observe KIA military discipline.

Later, at the same spot, on 12 February 1992, at around 4pm, the order would be given to execute student leader Ko Tun Aung Kyaw and fourteen other of our revolutionary comrades.

First of all, we arranged for each of us to lie down one by one and take a soak in the little stream. The rest of us filled a big wok with water and made a stand for it with three large stones and lit the firewood. We could barely contain our excitement as we watch the water coming to a boil. As bubbles began to rise to the surface, we launched our strategy to put down the lice.

Part of the group stripped to bathe, and threw their clothes into the steaming cauldron where we pushed them around with long bamboo sticks. Everyone watched the surface of water, curious to see what would happen next. As each garment was thrown in, the big white lice rose to the top, one by one. Soon the whole surface of the water was just a mass of their dead bodies so that the dirty water beneath was no longer visible.

Obvious this was no small dose of bad karma for us. But given the daily terror of not knowing when we would be beaten to death, watching those lice float to the surface could not help but give us a great deal of pleasure. After all, the pain they had inflicted on us had been considerable. We knew that, that night, we would be sleeping without the agony of itching that they had brought us for so long.

But our days of louselessness were short-lived. They returned to torture us with a vengeance. On the day that we emerged to dip our bodies, we had had to leave behind some of our comrades who had recently been tortured and were therefore too sick to get up or have their severed limbs come into contact with water. So we were unable to treat their clothes or our bedding. The lice lived on there, and they seemed to then double their reproductive efforts to ensure the survival of the species. Before long, new generations emerged, and we returned to our lives of suffering, scratching and stirring in bed.

So the lice once again had the opportunity to resume their campaign and march against us. Those were the early days of the SLORC, when some businessmen were scrambling to get rich quick through partnering with the military in construction projects. We band of lucky fellows, on the other hand, were making serious efforts to escape our lousy millionaire lifestyle.

But I recall the day came when we unilaterally declared surrender to the body lice. That day came after our comrades were executed, as I mentioned earlier.

I had realised that we all, whether humans or other living creatures, fear death from a blade hanging over our necks, and that we should have sympathy for them. And each day as I went to work to cut and carry firewood, or break and haul rocks, I would walk past Assam Hill (which we renamed Ko Tun Aung Kyaw Hill), where our comrades had been executed. I would reflect on a Jataka story of the Buddha about a monk who at the time of his death was so attached to his robe that he became a louse within it. 

A thought occurred to me: what if some of the fallen members of our group had been similarly attached to us and our clothing? I shared this with my comrades and from then on we agreed to cease unilaterally our boiling water campaign against the lice, and to resume our lousy millionaire life, which we did for the rest of the spring and through the hot season. Then one night, when the monsoon had already begun, we abandoned Pajawng camp in the heavy rain and fled for our lives.

ABSDF Bosses
We returned ‘to the legal fold’ with new clothes from the Red Cross, and my body lice and I parted company in a velvet divorce. I was tempted to sing them Khin Wun’s song ‘Farewell’ but guessed that they probably cared little about art.

It is now twenty years since I lived my nightmare as a lousy millionaire. This coming February 12, 2012, will be exactly 20 years since the death of Upper Burma Students Union Leader Ko Tun Aung Kyaw and other comrades who had all abandoned their families and homes with the noble intention of liberating our country.

As I said at the beginning of this story, when I read Khet Mar’s essay on lice, I itched all over. But it was from the recollection of those many nights spent in the company of lice; I no longer itch from their bites for real.

As one of those who lived through the events which resulted in the death of Ko Tun Aung Kyaw and over thirty others who sacrificed their lives for their country, I feel guilty for keeping what happened to myself and not letting others know in any detail what happened there. These thoughts have been bugging me just as those lice bugged me twenty years before, which is why I have undertaken now to write this down.

But in reality, according to Samsara, the endless cycle of life, our karma is a constant companion, a sort of invisible body louse drawing on our blood. How long is it with us? Countless lives, years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds.
Dedicated to Ko Tun Aung Kyaw and my other comrades who fell in Pajawng

by Artist Htein Lin, December 2011