‘Political Prisoners Are Like Plaster’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 22 August 2014

Artist Htein Lin is trying to visualize the extent to which Burma’s political prisoners have sacrificed for their country. To that end, he has become something of an expert when it comes to plaster of Paris, as he has set out to mold casts of the hands of hundreds of former political prisoners who were put behind bars under Burma’s former military regime.

An ex-political prisoner himself, Htein Lin is planning an exhibition, “A Show of Hands,” that will feature the dismembered white plaster remnants of the activists, writers and comedians whose hands he has case, molding their likeness and all the while recording their stories on video. The Irrawaddy sat down with Htein Lin this week to discuss his project.

Question: When did you start collecting casts of former political prisoners’ hands?

Answer: It began in August of last year, after I returned from England. It’s already been one year. Before I moved back to Burma, I took some plaster hands of ex-political prisoners who are living in England.

Q: How did you get this idea? What was the motivation?

A: When I was in England, I broke my hand in a bicycle accident. My hand was healed back to its normal condition through a plaster mold, but it took a long time. My hand was in terrible condition at that time; bones were broken into many pieces. But after [the cast], everything was fine. I got this idea from that.

Burmese society was shattered under the military government, so I believe that political prisoners are like plaster. They can heal our society, return it to a normal, strong condition. Former political prisoners will put Burma back on the right track, that’s what I feel. I wanted to create art for them. Our next generation will know what their history was via my art.

Q: How many molds have you collected so far? Can you tell me who some of them are from?

A: It’s up to almost 400 hands at this point. There are many kinds people in various segments of society. In literature, Daw Theingi, author Ma Thida [Sanchaung], Myo Myint Nyein, U Moe Thu; from film, Zaganar, U Aung Lwin; then Ko Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein [of the 88 Generation students]; blogger Nay Phone Latt.

And lesser known people will also be included. Such people sacrificed everything, but people don’t know about them. I found one man in the town of Bago whose family were government employees—in 1988, he was a university student, but now he drives a trishaw. After he got involved in the uprising, his entire family was evicted from the civil servants’ quarters, all family members were fired. His mother passed away due to this. He has nothing, sacrificed everything. I just recorded his life.

And also Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo’s hands will be included. I lost the chance for U Win Tin—I tried to take a mold of his hand while he was in the hospital but it wasn’t a success. I thought he would recover soon, but he passed away.

Q: How many hands are you intending to collect?

A: I’ve been targeting 1,000 hands for this show. After I get 1,000 hands, I will start planning for a public exhibition. I expect that it will show late this year.

Q: How do you define a political prisoner?

A: A political prisoner, as I define it, is someone who has sacrificed for democratic reform in our country. The people who were arrested while they were protesting against the military government after the 1988 uprising in Burma are political prisoners, for example.

Q: How much will the project cost? Where is the funding coming from?

A: I have been using my own money, but I will need money when I display them. It costs 1,000 kyats [US$1] for a plaster hand mold. I haven’t had any [financial] support from anyone up to this point.

Q: Do you plan to show these hands in a museum or donate them elsewhere?

A: I don’t plan to sell this installation art. I will offer it for showing if there is an invitation from another country, but it will be based permanently in Burma.