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Letter from Burma (No. 39)
Mainichi Daily News, Monday, September 2, 1996
Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka was arrested in 1989 and sentenced by a martial law court to 20 years' imprisonment in October of that year. The SLORC had accused him of seeking to cause an insurrection within the armed forces. At the time he entered Insein Jail, Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka was already suffering from a chronic disease that was laying his muscles to waste. His movements were stiff and jerky, and everyday matters, such as bathing, dressing or eating, involved for him a series of difficult maneuvers which could barely be completed without assistance. For a man with his health problems, life in solitary confinement was a continuous struggle to cope. And Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka struggled manfully. But his already much-eroded physical system was unable to withstand the inhuman conditions of Insein Jail for long. In June 1991, Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka, navy officer and humorist, poet and political activist, died in custody at the age of 65.
Even during his darkest days in prison, Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka's muse did not desert him. In secret he composed poems about the gross injustices committed under military dictatorship with a biting anger entirely removed from his delicate rendering of old English sonnets. "Twenty years, they say ... in accordance with that (legal) section of all things that is unclean and despicable," he wrote with contempt of the sentence which, for him, turned out to be one of death.
October and November of 1990 were months when the SLORC carried out a major crackdown against the movement for democracy. It was in these months that numbers of National League for Democracy members of Parliament were brought into Insein Jail. Among these men, elected by the people of Burma to form a democratic government but condemned by the military regime to imprisonment, was U Tin Maung Win of Khayan. He had been a prominent student leader in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1962, when students protested against the high-handed actions of the military government that had newly come into power, he was the chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Student's Rights. The next year, as the leader of the Rangoon University Students' Union, he was placed under arrest.
U Tin Maung was kept in prison for seven years. But neither that experience, nor the even more deadening one of life for a quarter of a century under the Burmese Way to Socialism, succeeded in killing his political convictions. In 1988, U Tin Maung Win took part in the movement for democracy in concert with other student leaders of the past. In the elections of 1990, he contested as the NLD's candidate in his native Khayan against his own brother who represented the NUP, the main adversary of the democratic parties. Five months after his victory in the elections he was arrested.
U Tin Maung Win spent a month at Ye-Kyi-ain, an infamous military intelligence interrogation center, before he was sent to Insein Jail. When he was charged with high treason in January 1991, he was not able to be present at his trial because he was too ill. By Jan. 18, U Tin Maung Win was dead. The authorities claimed that he had died of leukemia but before he was incarcerated just four months previously there had been no sign that he was suffering from such a grave disease. It is the contention of those who saw his body before burial that he died as a result of ill treatment in prison.
Last year, U Kyi Saung, secretary of the NLD branch in Myaungmya, a town the Irrawaddy division, was arrested. He had attended a Karen New Year ceremony in a Karen village and there, he had read out the message of goodwill that the NLD had brought out for the New Year. This peaceful, innocuous act of courtesy was reported by the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the "social welfare" organization formed under the aegis of the government, the Myaungmya Township Law and Order Restoration Council and to the local military intelligence unit. The TLORC thereby arrested U Kyi Saung under Section 5 of the 1950 Emergency Act, which has come to be known as the "Can't Stand Your Looks" section as it is used indiscriminately against those whom the authorities cannot abide. An elderly man, U Kyi Saung's health deteriorated rapidly and he died in May 1996 before his trial was completed.
I have written only about well-known members of the NLD who died in custody but they are not the only victims of authoritarian injustice. Prisoners of conscience who lost their lives during the 1990s represent a broad range of the Burmese political spectrum and even include a Buddhist monk. Of those sacrificed to the misrule of law, the oldest was 70-year-old Boh Set Yaung, a member of the Patriotic Old Comrades' League, and the youngest was a 19-year-old member of the NLD. The exact number of deaths in custody cannot be ascertained but it is not small and it is rising all the time. The price of liberty has never been cheap and in Burma it is particularly high.
This article is one of a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese translation of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the previous day in some areas.