Two decades ago today, I was reborn.
On that morning, as I and my fellow inmates were busy doing chores, preparing breakfast and cleaning the earthen toilet bowls just outside our cells, I heard my name being shouted from the gate of the compound containing Cell Blocks 1 and 2.
This unfolded inside Tharrawaddy Prison, which holds a significant place in Myanmar’s history as the scene of the execution of the peasant rebel Saya San, who led an armed uprising against British colonial rule and was hanged in 1931 along with dozens of his followers.
“Kyaw Zwa Moe!… Win Naing!… Han Myint!…” shouted a warden. Smiling, our fellow prisoners echoed the warden’s shouts. Though you could never be certain of anything in prison—it could just signify that you were being moved to another cell, or even another prison—for an inmate who had nearly completed their sentence, having one’s name called out could be auspicious.
As it turned out, we were being freed.
One of my fellow political inmates, who spent 19 years in prison, once remarked: “If a prison is a graveyard, then a cell is a tomb.” On Sept. 7, 1999, I walked out of my tomb—Cell No. 7—and out of the graveyard known as Tharrawaddy Prison.
That was the day I was reborn.
Eight years earlier, I experienced a “death” and “burial” in Insein Prison.
Obviously, I didn’t literally die. But what does “life” mean to a person without a social life, an educational life, an intellectual life, a family life, a community life or a political life, to name just a few—a life devoid of all the things free people enjoy? Without such lives, how can a person be considered alive? So, I “died” on the day I was arrested in December 1991 and thrown into a prison cell in which all such lives were taken away from me.
It was an institution that named itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that “killed” me, along with all of those who tried to remove it in order to restore a government elected by the people. SLORC was the military council that staged a bloody coup in 1988 following a nationwide uprising in Myanmar.
The intention of SLORC’s leaders was clear: to kill our spirit, our passion, our commitment, our conviction, our courage, our wisdom, our integrity and the like. Those are values, but I would call them the “weapons” with which we waged combat against the country’s most powerful institution. Thus, they needed to “kill” those who wielded such weapons.
However, when I walked out of Tharrawaddy Prison on the morning of Sept. 7, 1999, I didn’t feel like a warrior who had been stripped of his weapons. I felt stronger than before. Not only had I escaped being killed, but I had also acquired stronger weapons during my eight years in the “tomb.”
These weapons are part of our essence; they flow in our veins. But we also drew inspiration from figures like South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, Czechoslovakian dissident leader Vaclav Havel and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In prison, we overcame physical and mental difficulties without despairing, as Mandela did during his 27-year imprisonment. As I wrote in a previous story, “A Recipe for Survival in Difficult Times”, many of us managed to turn our cells into classrooms and even libraries.
So, as I walked out of the prison, I felt as if I were walking out of university after having completed a post-graduate degree. That’s the joke I tend to tell my friends and others who ask me what eight years of imprisonment feels like.
But I really believe it’s true. In fact that description doesn’t fully capture the very rare opportunity imprisonment gave me; one that few people in the world ever receive.
Life in prison, with its ruthlessness and inhumanity, is beyond the experiences of dissident life. As I endured and tried to cope with those difficulties, which simply don’t exist in everyday life, I felt I was taking an examination—not simply to pass a class, but to survive, to preserve the life my mother had given me. These kinds of tests truly develop a person—both in terms of IQ and EQ.
On that morning as I walked out of the prison, I couldn’t fully enjoy my freedom knowing that thousands of my fellow political prisoners were still behind bars. Besides which, I wasn’t free politically; the country was still under the rule of the same institution, which had renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council and was regarded one of the world’s most oppressive military regimes.
Which is to say, I didn’t walk out of the prison feeling I had won. No, not at all. But nor did I feel that I had lost the battle. I felt like I had undergone a long, intensive period of special training, not only to continue our unending struggle, but also to cope with an uncertain and unexpected world.
I felt I had been reborn to continue the struggle we began before I was arrested—to free our country from any form of authoritarian or military rule.
This week, 20 years after my rebirth, I met some of my former cellmates, including Ko Han Myint, who was released with me. He continues to lead the life of a used-book seller in Pansoden, Yangon—the life he was living before his arrest nearly 30 years ago. While not technically a dissident, he is of course a person who has always been against the regime as a citizen. He was arrested and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the crime of helping us student activists deliver messages to each other while sitting in his book stall on the pavement in Pansoden.
In both Insein and Tharrawaddy prisons, he never showed despair at his imprisonment. When I met him this week, he was happily making his living. He was reborn, too, not letting his spirit be broken in prison.
Another former inmate I went to see this week was Ko Soe Myint, whom I also met in Tharrawaddy Prison.
He was reborn three times. He was first arrested in 1978, and jailed for two years until 1980. In 1981, he was rearrested and imprisoned till 1988. In 1991, he was arrested a third time and imprisoned for exactly 20 years. All of his alleged crimes were against Ne Win’s authoritarian regime and the military regime that followed.
Ko Soe Myint spent 29 years in prison—longer than Nelson Mandela. Now with his family, he works as a writer and translator for several publications. He writes articles related to politics, human rights and the military.
It’s surprising to see how resilient and strong these people are, though they are supposed to be “dead inside”, or to have been mentally broken.
Foreign observers and even local people sometimes say that Myanmar society “as a whole” was traumatized due to the oppressive rule of the dictatorship and the country’s dire political situation over the past five decades.
I totally disagree. Certainly, out of a population of 53 million, some individuals have been left scarred, as they have in other societies. These include people who have been tortured, imprisoned, intimidated or displaced. But it’s not right to say that “Myanmar society as a whole was traumatized.” Perhaps such observers are projecting what they imagine they would feel if they had been through what Myanmar people have experienced.
The resilience and endurance displayed by the former fellow inmates I mentioned above serve as proof that this idea of a “traumatized society” is false. If Myanmar society has been traumatized, that trauma must have begun with the invasion by the British, who ruled the country for a century. It must have been repeated during the Japanese occupation and then suffered again when the British returned after World War II.
I think Myanmar people are quite resilient. We may have been “killed” more than once, but we are used to being reborn.
Twenty years after my own rebirth, I find myself still fighting for what I believe in. Around me, I see countless other individuals in the same boat, striving on behalf of their beliefs. We might face death again—just to be reborn.