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.
Htein Lin’s fellow political prisoners mocked the judge. He recalled them shouting: “Are you sure that sentence is long enough?”
Prison, he says, destroyed his family. He was cut off from his daughter, who to this day calls him “uncle,” not “daddy.” While he was in prison, his wife left him and his father died; it took two months for him to receive the news.
He survived prison with meditation, his art and his unremitting defiance of his captors.
“I never accepted how I was treated,” he said. “You need to constantly fight.”
FRENCH AID: Paris has sent a navy ship and aircraft from Reunion Island with some pollution control equipment, but rough seas are spreading the oil spill The operator of a Japanese bulk carrier which ran aground off Mauritius in the Indian Ocean yesterday apologized for a major oil spill, which officials and environmentalists say is creating an ecological disaster, as police prepared to board the ship. The MV Wakashio, operated by Mitsui OSK Lines, struck the reef on Mauritius’ southeast coast on July 25. “We apologize profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused,” Mitsui OSK Lines executive vice president Akihiko Ono said at a news conference in Tokyo. The company would “do everything in their power to resolve the issue,” he said. At least 1,000 tonnes of
They stand as eyesores to most passers-by and potential public health risks to authorities, decaying buildings wrapped in tangles of exposed wire, studded with protruding leaky plastic pipes, vegetation billowing from cracks and terraces where particulates from polluted air have accumulated over time. With skyscrapers and ultramodern developments on every side, some of these “nail houses” are also sitting on land worth millions of dollars in Shenzhen’s inferno of a property market, where new-unit and second-hand home prices rival London. In battles over land and development, the nail house phenomenon has become widespread throughout China over the past two decades, with owners
An Italian alpine resort on Friday remained on high alert over fears that a vast chunk of a glacier on the slopes of the Mont Blanc massif could plummet in high temperatures. “No one gets through! No cars, bikes or pedestrians,” was the message at a checkpoint where an automatic barrier and two guards blocked the small road snaking up into a lush valley below the Planpincieux glacier, near the town of Courmayeur and the Italian-French border. The blockade has largely been greeted with contempt by the locals, one of whom said: “It’s a joke.” The huge ice block measuring around 500,000 cubic
SHOW OF SOLIDARITY: The publisher’s ‘Apple Daily’ newspaper has had to raise the number of copies printed from 70,000 to 550,000 to meet a huge surge in demand They have occupied Hong Kong’s central business district, marched by the hundreds of thousands through the territory’s streets and endured tear gas and pepper spray in pitched battles with riot police. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters are now wielding a new protest weapon: their stock-market trading accounts. To show support for Jimmy Lai (黎智英), the publisher and outspoken government critic who was on Monday arrested under the territory’s new national security legislation, Hong Kongers have been piling into shares of his media company Next Digital. The result: a more than 1,100 percent surge in two days that propelled the stock to a seven-year