Heroes behind the lines
The welcome release of political prisoners in Burma (Myanmar) should also be an occasion to acknowledge the stoicism and heroism of their families during their long years of incarceration, says Kyaw Zwa Moe.
IN 1969, when Thandar was only three years old, she slept on the floor of a Rangoon-to-Mandalay train with her mother lying beside her. Seats were an unaffordable luxury, but neither Thandar nor her mother minded the uncomfortable 12-hour journey. They were travelling to visit her father, whom she had not seen since she was six months old, in Mandalay Prison.
The trip marked the first of hundreds of prison visits that Thandar would make in her lifetime, but Lady Luck - who often goes AWOL in Burma - did not smile on her on this occasion. Upon arrival at Mandalay Prison, Thandar and her mother discovered that her father, a journalist and peace activist who was arrested by Gen Ne Win's regime in 1966, had been sent to the prison on Great Coco Island in the Indian Ocean, also known as Devil's Island, which had no inhabitants other than prisoners and their guards.
Three decades later, Thandar once again found herself on the floor of a train from Rangoon to Mandalay. Life had come full circle, and this time she was the mother escorting a young child to see a father behind bars. Her five-year-old son lay next to her, and they were travelling to meet her husband, Nay Oo, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who was serving a 14-year sentence in the remote Kalay Prison for his role in Burma's pro-democracy movement.
After travelling the 400 miles from Rangoon to Mandalay on the floor of the train, Thandar and her son had to continue by bus for another 160 miles through dense jungle to Kalay. Along the way, they had to cross the wild Chindwin River by boat, and as the craft was being tossed about by monsoon season waves, a tearful Thandar wondered whether she would survive the 4-day journey.
But she wiped away her tears, gritted her teeth and endured, finally arriving at Kalay Prison for the 15-minute visitation period she would be allotted with her husband.
'You deserve an award,' the warden said mockingly upon her arrival. 'Your husband was among the first batch of new prisoners, and you're the first person to visit.'
'No thanks, I don't need that award,' Thandar replied, unable to resist the retort despite knowing that it might bring trouble for her and her husband. Exhaustion and anger had consumed her.
After seeing Nay Oo incarcerated in deplorable conditions, Thandar decided to stay in Kalay so she could visit and bring him nutritional food every fortnight. But she had no money left after paying the travel expenses, so she decided to sell fish paste in the Kalay town market. A 5,000 kyat donation from NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and another 5,000 kyat from a sympathetic poet, helped her get started.
'I feel I was born to make trips to prisons,' Thandar says, recalling the past from her current home in a refugee camp in Thailand. 'I started with my father and continued with my husband.'
Like the trips to the prisons, Thandar says, her journey from being a prisoner's daughter to a prisoner's wife was long and arduous.
As a young girl, Thandar was unable to understand that her father's imprisonment was unjust, that he was not a criminal. So when other kids teased her about being a 'prisoner's daughter', she was often reduced to tears and left hiding from her friends.
Thandar's father was eventually released, but when she turned 12 he was arrested for a second time. As a result, she had to quit school and work every day dyeing sarongs so her family could make ends meet and afford trips to the prison.
Her hardships became even more severe as a prisoner's wife.
'It's incomparably more difficult to be the wife of a prisoner than the daughter,' she says. 'I was faced with more economic and social problems. In my neighbourhood, a wife without a husband was unprotected - she was viewed as having less integrity and was vulnerable to any insult.'
Some relatives wouldn't even let her visit their home, because they were afraid that government authorities would put pressure on them if they were seen as having political connections.
'It made my life really miserable,' Thandar says.
But she is considerably grateful to many people in Kalay Town, who bought fish paste from her because they knew her husband was a political prisoner and she was working to support him.
'They named my smelly commodity "democracy fish paste",' she says with a smile. 'Without their moral and economic support, I wouldn't have been able to regularly help my husband.'
Between 1998 and 2005, the eight years during which Nay Oo was jailed, Thandar made more than 200 visits to Kalay Prison. During that time, she came in contact with the family members of many other political prisoners, and tried to help some of those in even more dire straits than her.
Since the time that Thandar's father was imprisoned, there has never been any shortage of political prisoners in Burma, and there are currently over 2,000 political prisoners incarcerated in 44 prisons across the country.
Due to the horrible prison conditions, the inmates rely on food, medicine and necessities supplied by visiting family members, and in addition to visiting her husband regularly, Thandar helped family members of other political prisoners make trips to remote prisons.
One family she assisted was that of a school teacher named Saw Ni Aung, who in 1991 was arrested along with his wife in connection with an ethnic Karen uprising in their home town of Bogalay. When Saw Ni Aung was sentenced to life imprisonment and his wife to five years, they left a five-year-old and a six-month-old son behind.
At first, Saw Ni Aung was held in Kalay Prison alongside Nay Oo. He passed the time there making small soap sculptures of horses and elephants for his two sons, which he would pass to Nay Oo, who gave them to Thandar, who delivered them to Saw Ni Aung's sons. Although the sculptures may seem like a small gesture, Thandar says, they represented and transmitted Saw Ni Aung's metta (loving kindness) for his sons.
Later, when Saw Ni Aung was transferred to another remote prison in Shan State, Thandar accompanied his eldest son on the long journey so that father and son could see each other for the first time in 10 years.
At first, however, the prison authorities would not allow Thandar and the boy to see Saw Ni Aung - military intelligence officers interrogated Thandar and questioned why she was helping the young boy, even asking if he was really Saw Ni Aung's son. But finally, after the boy explained that he had not seen his father in a decade and provided an hour's worth of details about his family, the officers were convinced and let him and Thandar see Saw Ni Aung.
'It was a sad meeting. When I heard them call each other "father" and "son", it made me tremble,' Thandar recalls. 'Saw Ni Aung was looking at the face of his teenage son who he last held as a baby. I couldn't hold back my tears.'
More tears flowed, this time from the eyes of Saw Ni Aung, when the prisoner asked about his wife.
'Mother died,' his son muttered, and then explained that his mother had passed away soon after being released from prison.
Before parting, Saw Ni Aung presented his son with a pair of football shoes that he had knitted out of wool cotton in his cell.
'I know you like playing football,' Saw Ni Aung said. 'It's a kind of art, just try your best. That's all I can do from here, my son.'
In 1999, Thandar transformed the hardship of her prison visits into success by writing stories based on her experiences under the pen name Hnin Pan Eain. That year, one of her stories received an award in a literary competition held by the NLD, and three more awards followed - one of them for an anthology of short stories published in Burma in 2007.
Then in late 2008, Thandar, her husband Nay Oo and their son fled Burma and found shelter in the refugee camp in Thailand, where she continues to live and write. Her stories are broadcast on a weekly basis by the Washington DC-based Radio Free Asia, where millions of people in Burma listen to her voice. In March 2011, she published a book in the Burmese language called Heroes' Kingdom in Darkness, a compilation of her stories about 40 prisoners and their families.
With her husband now free, Thandar does not need to visit prisons anymore. But her family's unwanted legacy has been passed on to her niece, Pan Wah, whose fianc Khin Maung Win was arrested just a couple of months after they became engaged in 2008.
Khin Maung Win was sentenced to 12 years in prison and sent to a cell for the same reason that Thandar's father and husband were imprisoned - voicing political views that are in opposition to the oppressive generals and ex-generals who control Burma. Just before being shipped away, he married Pan Wah in a court ceremony. This was both a romantic and a practical decision, because as his wife, Pan Wah is able to visit him in prison just as Thandar had done for Nay Oo.
'Don't worry, I will always come to see you,' Pan Wah told Khin Maung Win just before he was handcuffed and loaded into a police vehicle which was waiting to take him away for 12 years.
Thandar says that she thinks of family visits as a kind of physical and mental nutrition for the political prisoners, who she sees as freedom fighters on the frontline, fighting for democracy and human rights on behalf of the people.
'They are "warriors" but have no weapons,' she says. 'Our visits are a source of strength for them.'
Nay Oo, the husband she supported for so many years, agrees.
'For a battle, soldiers alone can't defeat the enemy. They need a supporting line with ammunition, food and medicine,' he says. 'The support of my wife and anyone else is invaluable - even a 15-minute fortnightly meeting means a lot. Without them, we can't be steadfast on our rough road. They are the heroes behind the lines, but are rarely recognised.'
This article is reproduced from The Irrawaddy (September 2011, www.irrawaddy.org).
*Third World Resurgence No. 257/258, January/February 2012, pp 44-45