Cell, Exile and the New Burma
8 The memoirs of a former political prisoner turned journalist hit the bookshelves.
“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.