Thu, Aug 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Artist chronicles grim suffering in Myanmar prison


A color photograph of the Burmese artist Htein Lin on the day of his release from prison shows him stooped and wan, looking easily 20 years older than his real age. His face is scrawny, and in one his of thin hands he holds a white plastic bag filled with the remnants of more than six years in a cell.

On his face is a jubilant grin.

Behind the smile was a well-kept, high-wire secret.

Htein Lin, a political prisoner accused of planning opposition activities, had managed to smuggle out from prison more than 300 paintings and 1,000 illustrations on paper. Now, three years later, his artworks are offering a rare vision of prison life in Myanmar, one of the world's most authoritarian and closed nations.

The most grisly of Htein Lin's works, titled Six Fingers, shows a line of thin men with missing fingers and toes. These were the men whose families were too poor to provide the US$50 to US$100 bribes that could stop prisoners from being sent to hard labor camps in malarial swamps and stone quarries.

"The only way for the poorer prisoners to escape the camps was to have an `accident,"' said Htein Lin, now 41 and a resident of London.

This usually involved asking another prisoner to use a hoe or a spade from the prison garden to cut off two or three fingers and then show the injuries to the doctors.

Other works, many on the white sarongs that serve as prison uniforms in Myanmar, show gruesome depictions of hunger and sickness. The artworks are on display for the first time at Asia House, a cultural center in central London.

That Htein Lin's work is on public display here pinpoints the long connection between the former Burma and Britain, the colonial power from the 1880s until just after World War II. Htein Lin does not specifically mention George Orwell in his show, but the legacy of Orwell, the British writer who worked as a colonial policeman in Burma and used his experiences there to fashion his themes on the rottenness of Big Brother rule, underlies much of the artist's work.

For Htein Lin, a stint of seven months on death row, where he was sent for punishment for giving a political speech to inmates, turned out to be some of the most productive time.

"It was a good chance to paint because the prison officers didn't come very often, they were too scared," he said.

The death row prisoners, though tough and not the least bit aware of art, wanted to help him.

"They wanted to participate in something. They felt, `Before our death, we can help this artist,"' he said.

So the men on death row willingly gave him their sarongs that were their only form of dress and served as Htein Lin's staple canvas.

The prisoners would then be left naked because sarongs were only issued every six months.

"They would sit there naked but they were very difficult to punish," Htein Lin said.

So the prison guards would give in and issue new sarongs, ensuring a future supply for the clandestine artist.

Htein Lin ended up in prison after a colleague in an opposition group, unbeknownst to the artist, sent a letter in 1998 to another colleague mentioning him as a possible recruit. The secret police intercepted the letter. They came to his house in Yangon and hauled him off blindfolded. A military tribunal sentenced him to seven years in prison. He was released slightly early as a part of a general amnesty in 2004.

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