Karen Leader’s Tale of Escape From Island Prison Makes Burma Debut

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 26 August 2013

RANGOON — Among those who rushed in to take advantage of the end of censorship in Burma, Mahn Nyein Maung is a latecomer.

One year after Burma pulled the plug on its censorship regime, the leading member of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic rebel group that has been at war with the central government since 1949, published his prison break memoir inside the country for the first time. The release of “Against the Storm, Across the Sea” in Burma comes about 19 months after a historic ceasefire agreement between the KNU and government was signed.

“If you were caught with this book 10 years ago, you would end up in a jail,” the Karen leader told The Irrawaddy at a book launch ceremony in Rangoon on Sunday. His book was first published outside Burma in 2000.

Formerly an underground activist inside Burma, Mahn Nyein Maung was arrested in the 1960s and sent to one of the Coco Islands, site of an infamous detention center for political prisoners about 300 kms off the Burmese mainland.

In his book, the now 71-year-old documents his prison days as a young Karen activist, detailing daily life on the island and his improbable escape from the place in a small boat. After more than 10 days crossing the Bay of Bengal in 1970, he made landfall in southern Burma’s Mon State, but was rearrested shortly thereafter and held until 1973. One year after his release, Mahn Nyein Maung left Rangoon to join the armed guerrilla movement, where he ultimately ascended to the senior KNU ranks.

His extraordinary escape from the Coco Islands earned Mahn Nyein Maung the nickname “Burma’s Papillon,” a reference to the famous French prisoner Henri Charrière, who made a seafaring escape from a penal colony in French Guiana and later wrote about it. The late Burmese writer Mya Than Tint, who was jailed along with Mahn Nyein Maung, would later create a protagonist of one of his bestsellers that was partially inspired by his former prison mate.

“I just recorded one part of my revolutionary experience in my life thanks to my comrades and friends’ urging,” said the guerrilla fighter-turned-writer.

Mhan Nyein Maung penned “Against the Storm, Across the Sea” nearly 30 years after his escape from the island. He wrote it in 1998, at a KNU frontline position in southern Burma, while camping near a stream that inspired him to put pen to paper.

“There is a waterfall upstream,” he writes in the book. “At night, when the whole world became silent, the only thing I heard was the sound of water falling. It made me think of my days on the high seas and I started hearing the waves, and I couldn’t sleep anymore,” he recalled.

In March 2012, Mahn Nyein Maung was handed a life sentence by the government after being found guilty of participating in acts of war against the ruling government, and an additional three years for having connections to an illegal organization. The prosecution submitted “Against the Storm, Across the Sea” as evidence of the treason charges.

But he was released less than a week later via a presidential amnesty, in a concession that was a KNU precondition for proceeding with peace talks. The release of the former prisoner of conscience is seen as part of a wider bid by both parties to lay the groundwork for national reconciliation.

“For a rebel like me, it’s really good to be here inside the country, talking to you at my book launching ceremony,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Don’t you think so?”