After Decades Incarcerated, Longtime Activist is Left with Loneliness

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 15 December 2012

RANGOON—When his wife died five years ago, Hla Shwe said goodbye after too little time together. The political activist had spent more than half his married life alone, living decades in Burmese prison cells, rather than at home with his spouse of 45 years.

“Imprisonment is no longer extraordinary for me. It’s become part of my life,” said the six-time former political prisoner on his 75th birthday last month. He was 22 years old when he was first arrested for his activism against the country’s former military junta.

Hla Shwe married when he was 24 years old, at the time a secretariat member of Rangoon University’s Student Union and editor of its Owey magazine.

But on July 7, just two days after the wedding, Burma’s ex-dictator Gen Ne Win’s troops raided the university campus, opening fire on students demonstrating against the military coup and harsh dormitory rules. The next day, at dawn, the soldiers used dynamite to blow up the Student Union building, assuming communists were being harbored inside.

“With the demise of the [Student] Union building in 1962, my life started to collapse,” said Hla Shwe, the Student Union’s last surviving secretariat member. “After the July 7 crackdown, I went underground to avoid arrest for nearly a year, until the government granted us general amnesty.”

The threat of imprisonment was a strain on his marriage.

“As a newlywed, I wasn’t able to spend much time with my wife, and we couldn’t even go on a honeymoon,” he said with a laugh, five decades later at his flimsy wooden home on a backstreet not far from downtown Rangoon.

Ne Win’s crackdown cemented Hla Shwe’s condemnation of the regime, prompting him to join the underground communist movement for six years after receiving amnesty. His life has since been punctuated with prison sentences. With his latest release in 2006, he had spent a total of more than 24 years behind bars.

Hla Shwe came from a poor family in a village seven miles from Bogale, in Irrawaddy Division, where he worked as a food vendor during primary school. Thanks to his progressive father, who believed education was crucial to escape poverty, Hla Shwe passed his university exams with five other candidates from the delta town.

“He wasn’t a well-to-do man, but my father asked me if I wanted to study in university. I said: ‘Of course, I do, dad!’” said Hla Shwe, now a bespectacled man with cropped gray hair.

At university in the late 1950s, Hla Shwe got involved with student organizations at different campuses in Rangoon. His pursued a bachelor’s degree in political science and history, with ambitions to eventually become a lecturer of law.

In 1961, he became editor of Owey magazine, the student union’s annual publication. The magazine was first edited in 1935 by national hero Aung San, the father of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and it became a breeding ground for some of the country’s most influential writers.

“With Ne Win’s dictatorship and the destruction of the union, the magazine came to an end, and I became the last editor,” he told The Irrawaddy.

With the 1962 coup, the Student Union’s secretariat member became an underground communist operative, arrested seven years later by the government for his affiliation with the outlawed party.

Released after three years, he saw turbulent years again in the 1980s: He was detained three times and released in 1995, serving 13 years total for his political activities. In 1998 he was arrested again for compiling a history of the Burmese student movement.

“I’ve been a political animal my entire life,” he said. “I’ve rarely had a chance for happiness. It can’t be helped.” Due to his frequent prison sentences, he had little time at home with his sons.

“I couldn’t take care of them properly, so they’ve become wayward children,” he said. “It makes me really sad.”

The longtime dissident remains skeptical about Burma’s quasi-civilian government under reformist President Thein Sein.

“I think the current government is a bunch of generals in suits. They’ve never been honest with the people,” he said before offering a warning to young activists. “You guys need to be very careful, because they have a lot of experience oppressing us.”

These days Hla Shwe lives with his grandchildren, spending most of his time writing. As a columnist for several local weeklies and magazines, he offers commentaries on international affairs and philosophy.

Under his pen name, which is dedicated to his late wife, he writes about the good old days at Rangoon University, where he met the woman who stood by him through thick and thin for more than four decades.

Sometimes he and his wife discussed politics, he said, remembering her on a rainy day five years after her death. “We were like comrades,” he added. “Now I’m lonely.”