David Scott Mathieson explores the new collection of essays by noted journalist Kyaw Zwa Moe, an emotional palimpsest of lives lived under military rule.
There is a painful poignancy to reading Kyaw Zwa Moe’s powerful collection of essays on the 30th Anniversary of the 1988 Uprising in Burma. The Cell, Exile, and the New Burma is an attempt to close a long circle of personal struggle, sacrifice, violence, complexity and inspiration. Yet it is a journey that refuses to reconnect, as if the hopes of 1988 ricocheted off the reality of entrenched military rule.
The Irrawaddy magazine’s editor, columnist and political talk-show host, Kyaw Zwa Moe is one of the most prominent chroniclers of the past three decades of Burma’s political drama. His new book is a timely reminder of recent history and the people who lived it, the lessons imparted should be guides for the present and future. How far along has Burma come, where are many of the people who were involved, and how do they feel about ‘Shwe Myanmar a-thit’ (the new golden Burma)?
His book is arranged in four parts: prison, exile, a series of eclectic personalized profiles of Burmese activists, leaders, and ordinary lives during dictatorship, and the final section on the ‘New Burma’ as the author returns from 12 years of exile in Thailand and reflects on the changes taking place.
Kyaw Zwa Moe was a teenage high-school student when the 1988 anti-government demonstrations surged in 1988 to topple the Socialist one-party rule backed by a ruthless military. He joined them and took to the underground life of activism. First arrested in December 1991 for his underground activities, he spent the next eight years in the notorious Insein and Tharrawaddy prisons.
His essays on prison life are a mixture of carefully drawn profiles of fellow inmates, his internal thoughts and fears, and the drudgery of daily life of dreadful food, torture, the beating to death of inmates, almost no health care, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in prisons, and the stench of human waste that hung in the primitive cells. The secret prison library, of banned reading and writing materials that the prisoners stashed in carved out warrens of the concrete walls, and the punishments that would be meted out upon discovery by the jailors finds mention in the book. Waiting becomes a twisted source of strength: “In ordinary life, waiting is exhausting. But in a cell, waiting is routine and inescapable.”
There are arresting chapters on the history of protest hunger strikers in Burmese prisons, and the huge toll exacted on the families of political prisoners by the vindictive military state that would transfer activists to isolated prisons to make monthly visits arduous and expensive. Reading Kyaw Zwa Moe’s reflections on his beloved mother, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1994 while he was in Insein Prison, is heartbreaking. He makes the often overlooked point that in a squalid police state, the families of the imprisoned are made to suffer, through social ostracism, impoverishment and routine harassment by local authorities.
There are inspiring cameos. Swe Win, the celebrated editor of Myanmar Now, who spent several years in prison after being arrested at the age of 20, tells the author of the fellow dissident prisoners who broadened his young and initially terrified mind, and the paradoxical opportunity of being able to read voraciously behind bars, a luxury he finds hard to fulfill in his busy free life. These chapters are a Who’s Who of anti-military junta activists that Kyaw Zwa Moe befriended behind bars, fellow activists, prominent writers, and people who are now elected members of the Pyithu Hluttaw.
This first part of the book deserves pride of place in the ranks of the growing memoirs of dissident prison memoirs, from U Win Tin, Ma Thida Sanchaung, and the many reports from the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP). On page 22 is a picture of Kyaw Zwa Moe’s “Life University” diploma: his official Release Certificate. Like U Win Tin’s blue shirt (the official prison garb the defiant writer refused to return to his captors), this slip of paper is a document of defiant pride.
Kyaw Zwa Moe was released in 1999, and a year later traveled into exile in Thailand, for over 12 years. It is there he transforms into the journalist/writer/commentator he is celebrated for. There are no deeply personal reflections of this transformation, no talk of how he settled in Thailand, studied in the United States and then began work at the preeminent exiled news magazine, The Irrawaddy, based in Chiang Mai and founded by his older brother Aung Zaw. It is difficult to convey now the bile, vilification, animus and frustration the then State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) had for The Irrawaddy, and how it’s trenchant reporting both informed and bolstered so many opponents of the regime inside and out of Burma. (Full disclosure, I began contributing to The Irrawaddy in 2003 and Kyaw Zwa Moe often edited my copy).
With justifiable pride, the author relates how the former head of Burmese Military Intelligence, Lt. Gen Khin Nyunt told the late leader of the Karen National Union (KNU) General Bo Mya, during perfunctory peace talks in Bangkok in 2004, “Don’t read The Irrawaddy.” Eight years later, after many columns and reportage from Kyaw Zwa Moe and many other colleagues, The Irrawaddy opened its Rangoon bureau, and still maintain their presence even as media freedoms are squeezed. Given that the ruthless spook Khin Nyunt was cashiered by his own military mob for corruption later that year, spent a decade under house arrest, and since his release still to this day hysterically denies that political prisoners were ever tortured, The Irrawaddy continues to enjoy vindication for their long crusade against the Tatmadaw and their dishonest thugs.
During this exiled interim, the author turned his attention to the Burmese of the borderlands. His travels to the émigré hub of Thailand and Burma produce rich portraits of eclectic people in the town of Mae Sot, what the author calls “haven or hell…dubbed the town of exiles, the town of dissidents, the town of rebels disguised as civilians, the town of migrant workers or the town of refugees.”
These profiles include the assassinated Karen leader Phado Mahn Sha, shot dead by gunmen suspected of connections to the SPDC or their Karen splinter-group allies – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), in broad daylight on the porch of his house in downtown Mae Sot. The story of Hla Phu, who arrived on the border over 40 years ago to fight as part of the doomed experiment of former Burmese Prime Minister U Nu’s Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP), an insurgency that fizzled even as ethnic resistance to military rule generated death and displacement along the borders. And Moe Swe, the head of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, who braved death threats (the contract was 100,000 baht for his killing, around US$2,500) to champion the rights of an estimated 200,000 migrant workers in the Mae Sot area, when 15 years ago a black plume of smoke in the fields often signaled the extrajudicial killing of a Burmese migrant worker who had the temerity to ask for their back-wages.
The author reflects on the cruel and persistently controversial internecine killings of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) in Kachin State in 1992, when 15 members were executed under spurious charges of being spies, and dozens brutally tortured. This part also includes research trips to China, and the misery of drug use and sex work endured by many Burmese along those contested borderlands.
The third part has a rich collection of profiles, including Kyaw Zwa Moe’s grandmother voting in the thwarted elections of 1990; U Khan at 100 years old who remembered driving Aung San to the Panglong Conference in 1947; the epitome of hardcore democracy and rights activists, Nilar Thein from 2007, when she had to hand over her young daughter while in hiding from Special Branch and was eventually sentenced, like many other members of the 88 Generation to 65 years prison; the young firebrand Banyar, who plotted to assassinate Khin Nyunt in 1990 (and spent years in prison subsequently); and an analysis of the history of elite level assassination in Burma, including Aung San, Saw Ba U Gyi and many others. Two of the brave medical personnel from the 1988 Uprising, Dr. Myat Htoo Razak and Dr. Win Zaw, immortalized in the iconic photo carrying the 16-year old schoolgirl Win Maw Oo, shot and killed during demonstrations in September that year are also remembered.
There is a 2008 study of one of the country’s most prominent Buddhist abbots, Sitagu Sayadaw, Burma’s version of the American evangelist Billy Graham, and his post-2008 Cyclone Nargis philanthropy, a study the author might have complicated with some contemporary perspectives of the prominent religious figure and his gadfly sermonizing over the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country. The government side is also addressed, with his story on Myo Myint, a former Tatmadaw soldier gravely wounded by one of his own landmines (and the subject of Nic Dunlop’s brilliant documentary Burma Soldier).
By 2012, Kyaw Zwa Moe was off the blacklist and not just back home, but reporting on a range of issues, from Kawhmu Township and the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that year in by-elections; from the national parliament to covering the rise of the 969 anti-Muslim movement; and the contradictions and constraints of the democratic transition started by U Thein Sein, which he frames metaphorically as a “rundown taxi driving in torrential rain with fraught passengers.” These challenges include the long delayed peace process to end the civil war, the “political conundrum” of Rakhine State post-August 25, 2017 attacks and in the final essay, fittingly, the “unfinished battle between the military and the NLD government going forward.”
It is important for everyone in the NLD government, and the Tatmadaw of course, to read Kyaw Zwa Moe’s book and be reminded of the brutal folly of locking up dissidents, journalists and critics. Yet this practice continues, under the very civilian government on which the hopes of 1988 rested upon. The struggles the author so eloquently draws may be unfinished, but the defiance is undimmed. This book is a bridge for the current generation to connect with the recent past.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues in Burma.