Cell, Ex­ile and the New Burma

8 The mem­oirs of a for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner turned jour­nal­ist hit the book­shelves.

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend|Culture - Photo: Shin Moe Myint. ZON PANN PWINT

“I do not whether know­ing much about his­tory and the politic of the coun­try at a young age is a curse or a bless­ing.” Kyaw Zwa Moe Writer and jour­nal­ist

KYAW Zwa Moe, a se­nior ed­i­tor for The Ir­rawaddy, has a smile that never wears off. He is am­i­ca­ble and fun most of the time with most peo­ple. It is hard to imag­ine that such a jovial char­ac­ter has spent years be­ing bars in the coun­try’s gloomi­est pris­ons.

Last week, he pub­lished his sec­ond book “The Cell, Ex­ile and the New Burma,” a chron­i­cle of the har­row­ing experiences that he and his fel­low po­lit­i­cal prisoners en­dured in the 90s.

The book is a com­pi­la­tion of 37 per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions and ar­ti­cles that ap­peared in the Ir­rawaddy mag­a­zine from 2001 to 2017.

Kyaw Zwa Moe’s aver­sion to in­jus­tice pre­dates his in­volve­ment in the 1988 move­ment. His po­lit­i­cal jour­ney un­ex­pect­edly started in 1987 when dic­ta­tor Ne Win sud­denly an­nounced a de­mon­eti­sa­tion.

He then ex­pe­ri­enced the bit­ter­ness of ar­bi­trary rule first hand. “Since I was young, I had heard about the un­fair­ness of the govern­ment from my par­ents and the peo­ple around me. I felt there was some­thing wrong with our so­ci­ety,” says the 47-year-old writer.

His read­ings helped him chan­nel his out­rage and shape up his char­ac­ter. In his teenage years, he had read pol­i­tics and his­tory books and other works of lit­er­a­ture in­clud­ing Thabeik Hmauk Kyaungtha (stu­dent pro­test­ers) by writer and politi­cian Thein Pe Myint, but also Bonebawa Hmar Hpyint (This Part of the Life Cy­cle) by politi­cian Thakhin Tin Mya.

For better or worse, he de­cided he had to act and do his bit to create a new, freer Burma. “I do not know whether know­ing much about his­tory and the politic of the coun­try at a young age is a curse or a bless­ing. The bless­ing is that I gain knowl­edge and the curse is that I was thrown into prison,” he laughs.

In 1988, when stu­dents across the coun­try started to rebel, he joined in. He was six­teen at the time.

Kyaw Zwa Moe was ar­rested in 1991 when he was found to be in con­nec­tion with the un­der­ground po­lit­i­cal scene. At the time he was help­ing pub­lish­ing Oway mag­a­zine, named af­ter the cry of the pea­cock, the Burmese re­bel­lion’s ral­ly­ing em­blem.

When he was caught, he was then about to en­ter univer­sity to com­plete his ed­u­ca­tion. In­stead, he went to “Life Univer­sity”, the nick­name con­victs gave to prison.

Learn­ing be­hind bars The book opens with the death of his mother. She passed away dur­ing the third year of his im­pris­on­ment. She reg­u­larly vis­ited him and was a life buoy to him.”i couldn’t write much about her. Rec­ol­lec­tion of her is painful,” he said.

He was de­nied per­mis­sion to at­tend his mother’s funeral. The only way he found to over­come his agony was to com­pul­sively read ev­ery­thing he could.“some have gone mad af­ter re­lease. It is very im­por­tant to tame our mind while be­hind bars,” he says.

But the military regime not only con­fined the po­lit­i­cal prisoners but also lim­ited their knowl­edge. Read­ing was prohibited in their cells and any­one caught read­ing would have their sen­tence ex­tended. But Kyaw Zwa Moe found ways around it.

“I asked my mother to bring copies of Wuther­ing Heights that I stud­ied in high school, but also Great Ex­pec­ta­tion, Ox­ford dic­tio­nary and old is­sues of Time and Newsweek,” he said.

He hid the books in a hole he had dug in­side his cell. Soon, the hole was big enough to ac­com­mo­date a whole col­lec­tion. He called it the hol­low ‘li­brary’ and be­came the prison’s li­brar­ian.

“I read copies of Time and Newsweek in the prison. I loved to read in­ter­view ses­sion with the coun­try’s lead­ers and writ­ers. Some­times, I made up ques­tions and an­swered them my­self,” he said.

Af­ter eight years in In­sein and Tharyawaddy pris­ons in­ter­view­ing him­self, he reck­oned he had ac­quired jour­nal­is­tic skills.

He left the coun­try and joined Ir­rawaddy English Edi­tion founded by his elder brother, Aung Zaw and pub­lished in ex­ile. He saw jour­nal­ism as a po­lit­i­cal tool. “I write in English in or­der to let the world know about my experiences in pris­ons,” he said.

The first ar­ti­cle was ti­tled ‘leav­ing home’, a poignant rec­ol­lec­tion of the mix of sad­ness and joy he ex­pe­ri­enced liv­ing the coun­try where he had spent so much time in jail, but the one he was ul­ti­mately fight­ing for.

His sec­ond text, ‘learn­ing be­hind bars’, is about how po­lit­i­cal prisoners sharp­ened their horns by learn­ing se­cretly amid con­straints. Some in­mates were sen­tenced to an ad­di­tional seven years’ im­pris­on­ment for be­ing caught open­ing a book.

A sea­soned writer Kyaw Zwa Moe’s first book in Burmese and ti­tled ‘”They Must Apol­o­gize to the Peo­ple” was a com­mer­cial success. The book is a com­pi­la­tion of in­ter­views with se­nior cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing U Win Tin, a for­mer pa­tron of NLD.

Kyaw Zwa Moe does not only write books, he in­spired some of them. He features in ‘The Lizard Cage’, a mem­oir of Myan­mar po­lit­i­cal prisoners’ lives in the no­to­ri­ous In­sein Prison, by Cana­dian au­thor Karen Con­nelly.

“The Cell, Ex­ile and the New Burma” is more of an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “I have writ­ten hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles about prison. I se­lected 37 that still re­flect mod­ern days. For even in the new Burma some ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists are im­pris­oned for un­cov­er­ing the truth and stat­ing clearly what they think is right. “The Cell, Ex­ile and the New Burma”, is avail­able at the Myan­mar Book Cen­ter and other good book­shops. It costs K15,000. A launch is fore­seen at Pansuriya gallery on June 12.

U Kyaw Zwa Moe, se­nior ed­i­tor of The Ir­rawaddy me­dia an­swers ques­tions, Yangon June 4, 2018.

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