Mon, Dec 08, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Former prisoner returns to a Burmese jail by choice

PART OF THE STORY:Reflecting on the ups and downs of his life, former prisoner U Htein Lin returned to his place of confinement to help others and reconnect with his past

NY Times News Service, YANGON, Myanmar

When he looks back on his years as a political prisoner, U Htein Lin thinks of a dark and damp place, of being blindfolded and beaten by guards, the meatless watery soup and the black plastic bucket that served as a toilet. And yet now, as a free man, something draws him back.

A decade after he was freed, Htein Lin has twice returned to prison to help teach a 10-day Buddhist meditation course, an undertaking that on one occasion led to an unplanned encounter with one of his former jailers.

He says he volunteered for the courses as a sort of civic duty; meditation helped him survive his own incarceration and he wanted to pass on that skill to others.

However, also — and this is a point he says many people will probably not readily understand — he wanted to reconnect with a sense of confinement. As an artist, prison was where he produced some of his best work.

“I see my life, the ups and downs, and think it’s like a story,” he said. “I look back and the downs are part of the story, too. This is the reason I wanted to go back.”

Htein Lin was sentenced by the military government for helping organize a pro-democracy protest, a common reason the paranoid junta used to lock up people.

However, unlike most political prisoners, Htein Lin emerged from more than six years of detention with something to show for it. While still in prison, he managed to produce and smuggle out approximately 300 paintings and sculptures. Some were sent to the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, which archives art related to Burmese history.

Old prison uniforms were his canvases, and syringes and the flint wheels of cigarette lighters served as paint brushes. In vibrant colors, he painted abstract images of mangled, emaciated prisoners, crenelated walls, locks and haunted faces. He sculpted bars of soap into the likenesses of prisoners crammed into cells.

“I was completely cut off from art critics and an audience,” he said in an interview at his apartment in Yangon. “I just did what I wanted. In the cell, I found freedom. It was the most important time in my art career.”

It is not unusual for former political prisoners to have complex and ambivalent feelings about their days in detention.

“Only people who have been in prison can understand these feelings,” said U Win Htein, a member of parliament who spent 14 years as a political prisoner.

Like veterans of war, former prisoners have a sort of kinship, a common understanding of a common painful journey.

Mah Thandar, a democracy activist who spent six years in prison, resumed her political activism when she was released in 2012. Last year, she was sentenced to one month in prison for helping lead a protest against a planned copper mine.

She describes a sort of perverse homecoming when she re-entered the prison, reconnecting with prison guards, some of whom hugged her.

For her, as with other democracy activists, prison remains the symbol of her fight against dictatorship, her persistence and fortitude in the face of injustice.

“I am not saying life in prison is joyful,” Thandar said. “It’s a waste of time. But I expect I will be imprisoned again. I am preparing for this. We will never give up.”

Htein Lin’s arrest in 1998 was for plotting a demonstration to mark the 10th anniversary of a popular uprising that was violently suppressed. Like the two dozen other people arrested with him, he was not allowed a lawyer. On the day of the sentencing, the judge picked up an envelope on a table, opened it and announced his seven-year sentence.

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