‘In Prison We Wrote on the Floor…. You Can’t Ban Poetry’

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 26 November 2017

San Zaw Htway (b. 1974) is a visual and performance artist who spent fourteen years in prison because of his political activism as a student. Banned from painting in jail, he collected discarded colorful plastic, cut them into pieces and created recycled-art collages from this garbage, as a form of political resistance. He is also an amateur poet and a trauma counselor for former political prisoners and their families.

When did you start writing poetry?

When I was around 21 years old. But I didn’t send my poems to magazines at that time. I wrote poems just in my notebooks.

In 1999, I was arrested and put in prison. I met with poet Maung Aung Pwint in prison. He had organized poem recitals every evening. I wanted to participate, so I had to write a poem every day. It made me feel happy.

Why were you arrested?

I should back up a step and tell you about my life from the start. I am 42 years old. I was born in Yay township, in Mon state. When I was born, we moved to Tavoy township, and I grew up in Mie Gyaung Ai village. This was a village in the middle of the civil war: there were Karen armed groups there, Mon armed groups, and Burmese military. Battles often happened when the Burmese military came into the area. And when they did not come, Mon and Karen rebels came to ask for rice, oil and food. We didn’t have peace or any kind of stability.

My mother sent my three sisters to Yangon to learn a trade – tailoring – and the rest of the family followed them shortly thereafter. We moved to Yangon with all of our savings. Then in 1987 the government cancelled the currency, making it worthless overnight, and all our savings were gone. Just like that.

Why had they cancelled the banknotes? We had saved that money so slowly, day after day, with such patience. Who gave them such authority to do so? I asked my father: he replied that they did it because they could. There was no explanation. I was so angry. They showed no responsibility or accountability.

I decided to fight against the government. I became a member of the Burmese Student Union. After the Hledan student strikes in 1998, I had to go into hiding, for the secret police followed me whenever I went outside my home. I went underground for almost a year. I hid in a monastery in upper Myanmar. Our cover story was that because the universities were closed by the government, we had come there to sell dried fish to make a living. I’d return to Yangon from time to time to meet other activists. We published and distributed political pamphlets

My luck ran out, and I was arrested for protesting in 1999 and sentenced to thirty-six years in jail. I was released after the Presidential amnesty in 2012.

You met with the famous poet Maung Aung Pwint in prison?

I met with Saya U Aung Pwint while we were at interrogation center but I didn’t get a chance to talk to him. I heard they were beaten by special police or military intelligence personnel. We were sent to prison at first and we left them including Saya Aung Pwint at Aung Thapyay interrogation center.

We then met in prison. He introduced himself as “Maung Aung Pwint who writes poems” when he came out of his cell to take a bath.

Why did you start making recycled art in prison?

Painting was forbidden in jail. So I found a way around that: by making collages out of discarded plastic. I cut up plastic wrappers, instant coffee packaging, and any other colorful plastic bags and wrappers I could find, and transform them into art.

I still do this art now, and travel around the country now giving workshops. I want to encourage everyone – particularly victims of trauma – with the idea that “we have nothing but we still can do something.”

We also have a big problem with garbage in Myanmar – there is little, or no garbage disposal in most places still. I believe that throwing trash on the street means neglecting one’s morality. If one can create artwork out of rubbish, this is a way to boost your morality. This is the message I want to give.

Why do you concentrate on visual art instead of poetry?

Making collages for me is all-consuming – in some ways I feel that it is a way of transforming words into colors. When I am working on my art, I can’t write poems. Of course, when I feel deeply about something, I write a poem.

How was poetry affected by censorship?

If you are banned from doing something, you must overcome it. According to Buddhism’s Pahtana, bad deeds may support good deeds. We had restrictions and barriers and so we had to try hard to overcome such restrictions and barriers. New words were born; new expression came from this struggle.

In every country that suffers from dictatorship, the expression of art is so strong because of such restrictions.

In prison, they didn’t allow us to write poems but we wrote down poems on the floor, or we made poems just by reciting them, and memorizing them. You could not ban poetry. Poetry was always in our mind.

What do you think about the changes in Myanmar today and how does this affect poetry?

The changes are happening at many places and they are very fast right now. But I see the people’s character does not change.

We now have the right of freedom of speech or expression. But everybody needs to practice it. We need to express our feelings freely, but without being angry or disrespectful.

Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom. 

The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel. A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.

 From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.

For more information: www.burmastorybook.com