RANGOON — Kyaw Htwe’s office is a well-lit and airy space on the sixth floor of a townhouse in Rangoon’s Sanchaung Township, where he employs four people in a small car rental business and recruitment agency.
“These two years, there has been low demand for car rental,” he lamented. “Tourists are not asking for car rentals much, but the recruitment agency is not so bad for me,” he said. “Interpreter, computer staff, some accountants, some admin.,” he said, listing off the type of vacancies he is tasked with helping to fill.
But running a business—even if the attendant stresses and disappointments are only tempered by occasional success—is a much better life, Kyaw Htwe said, than his old existence as a political prisoner.
Just 22 when he was first jailed in 1990, Kyaw Htwe spent five years inside Rangoon’s Insein Prison. “The whole prison life is in the cell, walking up and down, the cell measured 8 feet by 10 feet,” he said.
Zaw Ye Win is another former political prisoner who has gone into business since his release, before which he spent almost 13 years in a cell in Taungoo Prison, where he endured a routine as dull as Kyaw Htwe’s was cramped.
“They woke us up at 5:30am, to worship Buddha, whether I wanted to or not,” he recalled, describing the start of a typical jailhouse day. “Then breakfast: some rice, that’s all. Then wash. Then a short time to walk around. Then back to the cell, almost all day, but no book, no newspaper,” he continued, summing up almost a decade and a half of what might have been spirit-crushing monotony.
Kyaw Htwe was jailed the year Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a national election, only to be denied office by Burma’s military, and over the following years, thousands of other political prisoners were jailed, meaning that Kyaw Htwe sometimes had company in his tiny cell.
“At times there were six people in the cell, otherwise just I alone,” he said, counting on his fingers as he spoke.
The company was welcome, but cramming half a football team into a room the size of a walk-in wardrobe meant much discomfort and no privacy. “No toilet, so we all had to share one little white pot,” Kyaw Htwe said with a grimaced, his nose wrinkling at a pungent, two decades-old memory, even as he sat in his company’s breezy, clean Rangoon office.
After his release in 2011, Zaw Ye Win spotted an opportunity in Burma’s slowly changing economy. Along with five old engineer pals, he set up Engine Doctor Engineering in 2012, a business that trains mechanics how to fix the thousands of new cars appearing in Rangoon since the reforming government allowed a change in the country’s car import rules.
“There are three or four other companies doing what we do, and the demand is high, as there are so many mechanics,” he said, arm bent against the open bonnet of a gleaming new Toyota jeep, which was brought in to the engine doctors for some outpatient automotive therapy.
Getting started in business was not easy, however, for those released before Burma’s military junta stepped back and allowed a nominally civilian government to take office in 2011.
“The military junta sometimes encouraged businesspeople not to do business with former prisoners,” Kyaw Htwe said, a considerable hurdle given that army-linked businesses have long been central to Burma’s economy.
Bo Bo Tun, another ex-prisoner, set up a printing shop in downtown Rangoon in 1997, but as political prisoners were recycled in and out of jail during military rule, his shop drew the attention of Burma’s spooks, eventually forcing Bo Bo Tun to close in 2008, before reopening in 2012.
“Since the colleagues from political [activism] were coming and going frequently to my shop, the investigators were keeping watch on my shop since 2006. They came to our shop and watched what we were doing, copied our shop’s phone line and listened to who we were communicating with. They also pressed the house owner [landlord] of my shop to drive me out. So I closed the shop,” he recalled, speaking over the whirr of printers churning out paper.
Bo Bo Tun’s bond with former dissidents helped, as he now gets a lot of work printing for the NLD and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, the most prominent group of former political prisoners in Burma.
Another former prisoner whose business suffered at the hands of a capricious junta was Ye Min, who was jailed from 2005 until 2013. During those eight years he was shuttled around five jails, from Dawei in the south of Burma to Putao in the far north, after a business deal went awry.
“I won’t say I was completely innocent,” he said, “but like many others, I did not have a fair trial so I got no chance to show my innocence or not in court. That is where it should be decided, if I am innocent or not.”
While in Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State, Ye Min met Zarganar, the comedian and social activist whose voluble personality made him one of the better-known political prisoners and an international cause celebre.
The two became friends and now collaborate in House of Media and Entertainment, Zarganar’s media production company. But—as a businessman who previously helped foreign companies navigate the commercial minefield that was pre-sanctions Burma—Ye Min has a new niche in Burma’s investment-magnet economy, opening the Business Alliance Hub and an adjoining hotel on Dhammazedi Road in Rangoon last year.
The Business Alliance Hub is one of several office space-for-hire locations that have been set up in Rangoon—catering to visiting businesspeople and would-be investors needing somewhere with power and Internet to do some work while in town, in a city where electricity and web access can be spotty.
Ye Min said his experience doing business in Burma—his other current interests include a garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township and a rubber plantation in Dawei, where he was previously in jail—mean that he can offer more to visiting clients than other business hubs, he contends.
“I can help investors to find local partners and get connected,” Ye Min said, cautioning that his assistance is conditional, however. “The first thing I ask an investor is, if you have a project for the benefit of the country, I will help you.”
Ye Min credits the prison’s austere regimen with refining his work ethic. “In jail I woke at 5am, and I still do now. Every day. And I do the same exercises that I used to do in jail,” he added.
But for many other former political prisoners, the years in jail make it hard to make up for lost time, once free. “We had no time to learn in the jail, no chance to read, we lost our education time, our training time,” said Kyaw Htwe.
Typically, given their background, ex-political detainees have gone into politics, or activism, or media, after returning to the outside. But even in a country as diverse and fractious as Burma, there is a limit to how many political parties or NGOs can be set up, and only so much room for ex-prisoners in those organizations.
Ko Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who helped set up Golden Harp, a Rangoon taxi firm where three of the drivers are former prisoners, had to pause for thought when trying to think of other former political prisoners who had set up successful businesses after their release, even though he estimates that Burma could have jailed up to 10,000 political prisoners since 1962, the year the army took power.
The Burma government said it would free all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience—categories it once denied existed—by the end of 2013, but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and other prisoner groups say that over 50 political prisoners remain in jail.
For the thousands who have been freed, government policy has a lot to do with why so few former political prisoners have been able to set up a business, post-release, contended Bo Kyi, who is founder of the AAPP, an organization that long worked on the Thailand-Burma border to help political detainees.
“The government is using a divide and rule policy,” he said. “Some former prisoners need to report to the police, some cannot get licenses for business, some cannot afford it. The majority of former political prisoners are very poor.”
Many former political prisoners have struggled to find work, much less go into commerce, since their release into an economy coming out of several decades of misguided military rule and economic sanctions—and where unemployment is thought to be nearly 40 percent.
Bo Bo Tun said the government has a responsibility to help former prisoners, given that they were jailed unfairly and many lost their youth to jail time.
“Because of them, political prisoners were facing poverty during imprisonment and some have died both in jail and outside of jail because of the injuries received from prison,” he said.
Bo Bo Tun’s anger was echoed by Tin Maung Oo, who was jailed four times between 1996 and 2008, struggling to maintain or restart several enterprises along the way. “Government should draw up policy in Parliament for that because they have responsibility for political prisoners’ reintegration,” he said.
For a man with an engineering background like Zaw Ye Win, Burma’s economic glasnost and a changing car market meant a business opportunity and a chance to jump-start a career stalled by a government that jailed many of its best and brightest.
But he knows that such success is impossible for many other former prisoners. “Many political prisoners did not have any training or background to even get a job,” said Zaw Ye Win.
And for those former political prisoners who are running a business, there are the same challenges as those facing other entrepreneurs in Burma—where less than 30 percent of the population has electricity and less than 10 percent of people use a mobile phone or are online.
“To set up business, [the] main difficulty is capital. If just myself alone, I can’t afford it, so I collaborate with my friends involved in politics who have the same opinion with me,” said Bo Bo Tun, a testament, on the one hand, to how difficult it has been to get loan in Burma’s ossified, albeit now reforming, banking system; and on the other, to how the former political prisoner fraternity sometimes looks out for one another.
“One of my political colleagues gave me his jewelry to use as capital,” said Tin Maung Oo, discussing how he had to scratch around for money to restart his Rangoon glassware business after he was released.
Some former prisoners are hopeful that business conditions will improve in Burma, as new laws are passed.
“If we keep up the reform momentum, we will in time see our economy develop,” said Ye Min. “If the government helps the people get land, and makes it easier to get project financing, then people will have a better chance to do business.”
Back at Engine Doctor Engineering, Zaw Ye Win’s days are full. “We have around 15 customers a week, people whose cars we can diagnose or repair,” he said. But most of the time is spent on teaching new tricks to some of Rangoon’s thousands of old and young mechanics. “We have 15 staff, and so far have trained more than 400 mechanics,” he said, clearly revved-up by the challenge of running a new and much-needed business in Burma’s biggest city.