Words of Darkness


When the independent Pen Organisation (Burma) requested me to write an article for their magazine about authors in Burmese prisons, I said “yes” without consideration. In fact, I didn’t know how to start. Finally, when I imagine myself as if I was in prison again, these words and poems, and their images and shapes re-appeared.

One of the authors now in prison once remarked that the prisons, which exist under the authoritarian system, are designed to break one’s spirit, dignity and progress. Another author lamented, suffering is full among the iron bars and walls. Thinking and ideas appear, but none can write. There are no paper and pens here. Even if you find a small piece of paper, you are beaten.”

Every artist has the right to express freely his or her feeling of the present time. If this freedom is missing, one must try to get it. If one cannot write on paper, then they must speak. In prison I have seen encouraging writers, and authors who stand for the truth and love their people, I have also seen many opposites.

“Ko Aung Way” criticized the 1990 election like this,”The election which was held by the junta was nonsense, like a dog with ball around its neck”. As a result, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment with hard labor. Saya Min Lu was similarly put behind bars because of his long poem, ‘What Is Happening What Is Happening? Shawedagon Pagoda has been put under bail!'(After the military coup d’etat, the people were prevented from freely going to the Shwedagon Pagoda, and at times on one was allowed to go.)

I am a journalist and I love the editor’s life. I have two reasons for that. One is that I can freely express my opinion. Secondly, I can encourage young people to write as they would like to write”. said U Win Tin, an editor of Hanthawaddy newspaper. I can re-hear these words as if he sat and told me in person again. Similarly I can hear the words of U Kyi Tin Oo, Daw San San Nwe, Maung Thwe Khaing, Maung Wun Tha, Ko Aung Pwint, Ko Aung Htun, Ko Cho Saint, and Ko Thurein Htet Lin, and I wonder what they are doing and how they feel. I sympathize with them because I knew well the true situation of prison.

Not only the prisoners but also the authors in Burmese prisons are treated as if they were animals without human rights.” As soon as you arrive you are sent to a prison instruction cell where you were told that if you speak any complaints, your face would be bloody and as ugly as an owl’s face”, said one of the poets who was released. (In principle, this cell is for teaching prisoners the regulations that they have to obey. It is called Poun-san Khan which, literally translated in Burmese means Model cell.)

Another poet declaring his opinion of prison after his release said that he found two facts of prison life. One was the jungle law- survival of the strongest. Another was that money made everything. “Prisoners struggled under imperialism. We were very united in prison this was our powerfulness. If we saw unjust things, we felt it was our duty to resist them. Because of this, political prisoners were locked in tiny cell and transferred to remote areas.”

One of the worst things is that the junta has intentionally created investigation centers and prisons to torture political prisoners and imprisoned poets. A former imprisoned poet said that he remembered how he was tortured while he was in the investigation center. A former imprisoned poet said that he remembered how he was tortured while he was in the investigation center.

“One of the intelligence cried “You are a poet?, you wrote satire against our government? Which material did you use? You used these fingers to criticized us?

After that my fingers were stretched upon the concrete, and they proceeded to trample my figures with jungle boots. My finger joints were then beaten with iron rulers during an interrogation wherein they asked me sarcastically if I wanted to write. It was very common for my neck to be beaten by one intelligence officer after another, as they asked menacingly if I was poet. In addition, they warned and threatened me that even if I were released and was going to write a poem or something else to be careful. They said if I criticized their government, that I would hear my wife and children’s voices in this room and I would be punished cruelly.”

The prohibition of reading and writing in prison is one of the worst difficulties for poets and authors as they have large appetites to read and write. In prison if you find a piece of paper wrapping from a snack, you will be accused of breaking jail principles. If you can picture this situation, you can see clearly that the junta is afraid of a renaissance of the political prisoners.

A former political poet revealed his feeling in prison like this:
“When I complained to the prison chief authority, U Hlu Hla, (concerning the prohibition of reading and writing) he replied that, “Before you were arrested, you denounced our government. Therefore I cannot allow you to do this.” Sometimes I wondered if they were human beings. One time, when I was in a writing mood, I found a piece of brick and scrawled a short poem on the wall.

“To hold up the truth forever
I will knee down never,
My hell is OK.”

Yet before I had even finished it, a prison guard saw me, and I was immediately summoned to the jail office and beaten many times. Also, we often were able to obtain information from cheroot butts, as they are rolled from old newspapers. Yet again, when they found this out, we were punished for two weeks.”
Many famous intellectuals have died under the brutal system of prisons, such as Saya Thawka, Monywa Tin Shwe, and U Thein Tin. The following are famous words of Saya Thawka, which I would like to bring to attention, “When Burma regained her independence at 4:20 a.m. on January 4, 1948, the person who didn’t get freedom was me,” he had said and explained the following, On that day, as a soldier, I was a sentry. Others were in a happy mood. Also I wanted to be in a happy mood like the others. However I had no opportunity because I was sentry. Then , I pulled the trigger in my hand, and the bullet went through the roof. AS a result, I was put in custody”.

Nevertheless imprisoned poets and intellectuals have struggled for literature movements in prisons. At first, imprisoned authors wrote poems or short stories on prison walls with a piece of brick or some tablets. Later on, they found a way to write down easily whatever they wanted, on plastic, which had never been thought of previously for its usefulness as a book. With sharpened object inscriptions on the plastic there came the ability to write what they would like. Then they secretly distributed their publications from one cell to another, and exchanged their experiences with each other. They were also able to persuade the prison guards to smuggle in plain books and pens. After they had written poems, articles and short stories, they could begin to issue magazines. they could also smuggle out these magazines for posterity.

There are two famous literature movements of our time. One happened in April 1991 in Myingyan prison. The second occurred in 1995 in Insein prison. In both of these movements, imprisoned authors were able to contact outside democratic forces and the outside public, through prison guards. They were even able to issue several books, such as a book commemorating the memorial day of Phone Maw, who had been killed on March 13, 1988 at the Rangoon Institute of Technology, and a book about the Diamond Anniversary of Rangoon University, and so on. However, when the prison authorities learned that political prisoner and imprisoned authors were widely doing such things, they cracked down very brutally and over 20 people were charged again under section of 5/e and 17/20 and sentenced again, resulting in extended prison sentences. Some were given and additional 14 years, some 7 years. For instance, U Win Tin was sentenced to a 14 years prison extension and Ko Myo Myint Nyein was given 7 extra years. However, the junta cannot stop the publishing of books as long as political prisoners and artists are in the prisons.

In the history of Burmese authors like Saya Dagon Tayar, Sayagyi Hludu U Hla, Saya Bamaw Tin Aung and Saya Mya Than Tint have been arrested many times because they wrote of reality. Even now, there are many artists in Burmese prisons because of the truth. In my opinion, arresting the artists of Burmese is not only halting the current literature movement but also destroying Burmese literature, including ethnic literature.

In closing, I would like to present the following poem, written by U Aung Zin Min who has been arrested by the brutal military regime since 1996. This poem clearly portrays that even if the authors are put behind bars, they still try to fulfill their duty, ignoring its resulting pain.

“Kamaza Lei (Labour Pains)”
Darkness of struggle
Poised to fall
Look! There!
Colorful morning, full of beauty
Already aware how to embrace it.
(Aung Zin Min)