Insein inmate resumes studies behind bars
THE man is 21 years old, but looks older. He would look older still except for the white shirt and green longyi he wears, which gives him the air of a schoolboy. He is, in fact, doing quite well at his studies. He is also a convicted murderer, serving his time in Insein Prison.
Three years ago last Thadingyut, Ko San Htwe Maung was drinking with friends. Somehow they got into a fight. He says he doesn’t know what happened next. But a 60-yearold man was dead. Ko San Htwe Maung was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years.
“The cell was very crowded. There was nowhere to sit. I was afraid of the other prisoners and felt very vulnerable,” he said of his first impressions.
“At first I missed my friends and family, but it got easier later,” he said.
Sent to prison while he was still in high school, Ko San Htwe Maung took his matriculation exam in 2011 at BEHS 1 in Sanchaung township. Family circumstances made it inconvenient for him to retake the test, so he dropped out of education for a couple of years.
As a minor, he was at first incarcerated in the youth wing. Offered the chance to resume his education, he embarked on a course of study in the prison.
“When I saw the others studying I decided to join them. I had plenty of time, so I decided to try to matriculate again,” he said.
Last year, he passed, with a score of 333.
He was overjoyed and his parents were pleased too, he said.
“It’s bad he’s in prison, but good that he passed the exam,” said his mother, Daw Htwe Htwe, 53.
“Every day I miss him,” she said, showing a photo of him accepting a prize as a child.
The parents live in Sanchaung township. His mother is a cleaner and his father drives a trishaw.
Before he went to prison, Ko San Htwe Maung worked in a photo studio and computer shop, so was able to contribute to the family expenses. Deprived of the extra cash, his parents had to move into a small place next to a relative’s house.
“We can’t afford to rent a house, so now we live a hut in this alley. They say they’re going to knock them down to make way for a project. Our son used to support us but now he can’t,” said Daw Htwe Htwe, visibly upset.
She cannot believe her son is a murderer, but accepts that he got involved in a drunken brawl.
“I always tell him to think he must be paying something back for what he did in the past,” she said.
During prison visits, she grits her teeth to avoid crying.
“One day they will release him. I know that time is not yet. Until then, he’ll just have to stay,” she said.
After matriculating, encouraged by his mother and neighbours, Ko San Htwe Maung decided to try for a degree from the distance university. Prison officials also helped. “Everybody should have a chance at an education,” said U Myo Oo, a prison officer at Insein. “He’s a role model for the youth wing,” he said.
Now Ko San Htwe Maung, the only distance student in the prison, is majoring in Myanmar literature. He says fiction is something of an escape for him.
But he still gets depressed when he thinks about his friends.
“They all have jobs. All I can say is I’ll have to do my best,” he said in a low voice.
Ko San Htwe Maung says he tries to put the disappointments of the past behind him, gets on with the present and looks toward the future. He helps other prisoners with the knowledge he can pass on from his time in the computer shop.
This year, 20 students from the Insein youth wing have applied to attend distance education. Many were inspired by his example.
“The other prisoners trust him, and he managed to persuade some who were bored by teachers,” said prison officer Ko Zaw Linn Maung who has helped Ko San Htwe Maung with his studies.
The young man is working harder as finals approach. He believes that earning a degree will help him once he leaves prison and starts to look for a job.
His long-term plan is to own his own business, but he will first have to gain experience in the employment of others.
With five years to go, he intends to keep studying, whatever the exam results. In the meantime, he will be able to do some teaching in the prison.
“If I’m a graduate I will get precedence when I apply for a job,” he said hopefully. Outside, the sky seems to brighten a little.
Ko San Htwe Maung is the only distance university student at Insein Prison.