Suzana (pseudonym) writes a letter to her friend who has been arrested and imprisoned.
(Author’s note: The dates and locations (except for Shwe Pyi Thar and Insein) have been modified for security reasons. This letter was written mid-June 2021.)
Read the Burmese version of this post here.
May 2nd 2021, at 4 pm, is the last time I spoke to you. The following day, while I was having my first coffee of the day, I received a message from a friend in Yangon asking me if I knew – “If I knew what?” – The fact that you had been arrested by the military at 2 am in the apartment in which you had taken refuge in recent days. And that since then, no one knows where you have been taken to nor what happened to you.
In another life, I wish I had known on May 2nd what would happen that night. I hesitated to offer to speak directly to you since you seemed to have a good internet connection for once. I really wanted to swap our instant messaging habits for an actual face to face moment with you. I’m not sure why I didn’t suggest it to you. It might be because you told me that you now have a good connection available, that you no longer need to connect from the internet cafes in the city center to send news, and that we therefore, have time. Yes, we had, in short, a life ahead of us to talk to each other. Until that life was stolen from us overnight.
Since February 1, the day of the Coup, you have resumed your pace of political activism that you had decided to put aside to invest time in a green space outside of Yangon. You had even started growing organic vegetables. I liked to think that you had reconnected with nature, and I suspect that it did you good. Seeing pictures of you in a hammock by a small river appearing on my Facebook wall from time to time was soothing. I also noticed that you reconnected with your oldteam in your new environment, as if fate had started knocking on your door at the end of January. A few days later, the blow came, and it was together with them that you decided to continue the path of resistance, resuming the rhythm of underground activities. Our messages/photos of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers disappeared, the rhythm of our exchanges intensified, we were in touch every time you had access to the internet.
We are an encounter out of time and space, one that can be qualified as unexpected – where two very different worlds create a symbiosis: electric, at times explosive, but above all, full of compassion. With the news of the coup, I saw myself promoted to new functions: I became your database, your hard drive, your search browser, and your buddy; I knew if you were okay and when you were not. I followed the events in Myanmar by our exchanges: I walked with you in the streets of Yangon alongside thousands of peaceful demonstrators in February, and I walked a few months later in these same streets in fire and blood. I ran with you under fire from the soldiers. I felt the loneliness of those apartments where you lived, alone, where you were hiding. I experienced the sadness that sometimes assailed you when you saw the fate of some of your comrades. I feared the worst that night in April in your hideout in North Okkalapa; there was gun fire and soldiers right in front of your hiding place. It was all through you, ako, as in reality, I wasn’t there. You were in this mythology alongside thousands of others, face to face with fate, in a standoff with the inhumanity and injustice of the junta. You made your courage, and that of thousands of others in Myanmar, the light intending to burst the darkness. But darkness has this indescribable way of sticking to the surface; far from impossible, it requires persistence to be removed. And that perseverance you have all proven to possess.
Not to lie to you, but your fate began to worry me early on. You have always loved taking care of the young people you taught in recent years, and many have approached you asking for your support – which you gave. Make no mistake: Burmese youth need people like you, like the team right now. And fortunately, there is this solidarity and compassion that exists, among other things. However, connecting with many people and many different groups can slowly become a threat in an environment full of informers. And indeed, there was a mole. You had given me warnings; not about the mole which you did not know about, but the rest. You told me several times that you were ready to give your life for this revolution, for the Truth. Not that long ago, you told me again that you would continue until you would be arrested. I knew I was no match for you when trying to encourage you to leave the country, when arguing how much your safety depended on that move. Who was I to interfere with the plans you and the stars had agreed upon? You are a former political prisoner who had already been locked up for several years, and a new arrest would be brutal for you and your loved ones, of which today I am a part.
Then, on May 2nd, we lost track of you. You lost your new hiding place with wifi, and you have – frankly speaking – lost all your freedom and slipped into this other world. This dematerialized world makes one shiver down the spine. It’s silly, but habits are hard to change, and I thought several times about sending you a message to ask where you were and if you were holding on, before reminding myself that my message would certainly be read by the fools, the tormentors in green uniforms and boots. We didn’t know where you were; we didn’t even know if you were still alive. To replay your arrest in the middle of the night made me nauseous. However, I have replayed it so many times that I started wondering about the details; in particular – are activists arrested in their pajamas? I think these nonsensical thoughts kept me from overthinking about the distress you must have felt when you heard them smash in the apartment door at 2am.
So, we began those endless days searching for you – looking for a needle in a haystack. In contact with those in Yangon, and indirectly your family, we have tried to contact the groups of people who seem to be in the best position to obtain, in the long term – perhaps – information on your whereabouts. They managed to contract a lawyer who told us that you are most likely in Shwe Pyi Thar being interrogated. Pause – Fright. The words are chilling.
So, ako, you too were taken there. And I know that you already had experiences of physical and psychic miseries during your first imprisonment. We weren’t 100% sure if you were there, that was a guess – like many others. No one can go there, and no lawyer has access to the place. You are very sadly at the mercy of the boots, tortured to get information from you – we knew you too would never kneel down no matter how difficult it was and how unbearable the situation had become. Two weeks later, your family received a phone call from an unidentified source, who told them you had been injured during interrogation. Finally, we had found you, in what state? – we did not know – but you were still breathing ako.
Days later, you were finally transferred to Insein prison. And at that moment, we all felt a kind of relief. With this feeling, one can realize the human and destructive madness of what is happening in Burma. Insein has a dirty reputation and is described by former political prisoners as hell on earth. But now, it’s better than the worst of the worst. And you have a lawyer who can come and see you sometimes, he sure won’t be able to do much, but in a way, at least there is someone who is trying their very best. The fate of prisoners is now defined by an improvised courtyard in the corridors of Insein prison. Your sentence will be announced in a couple of weeks, or maybe months. And we suspect they won’t make it easy. They don’t have that reputation.
I don’t know how you fit within these walls or what you do to pass the time. I imagine you: sometimes meditating, sometimes contemplating the rain. I wish for you to have the company of other political prisoners as peacefully passionate as you are, and exchanges that allow your flame to remain alight. There are many political prisoners in Burma, and today some of them have become prominent figures of the opposition to the junta. Their journeys and the people they have become are a source of strength and hope to color the uncertainty of the future. Many of you in there are claiming this destiny and embodying the struggle for freedom. And we respect you all so very much for that. Ako, whatever they say, and you know it already – holding the light of freedom truly makes a difference. Your sacrifices are not in vain, and the sparkling lights are breaking through thick darkness.
… Take care of yourself. I ask it to the moon. On the other side of those grey walls, the revolution continues, and we are waiting for you. And even though we are disconnected for a while, we continue to share the same starry sky; and if we know how to listen, I was told the stars could also pass on messages. Until soon, ako. Nyima.
As long as political prisoners exist inside Burma, Burma will not be free. They represent the struggle for democracy, human rights, equality and freedom for the people of Burma.Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
(Featured image used with permission of the artist)
Suzana (pseudonym) moved to Yangon in 2012 and has called this place home since then. She has been working with different INGOs, CSOs and Human Rights Defender groups. With this letter, she wishes to share a part of ako’s life and bring awareness to the abusive treatment of political prisoners in Myanmar.