Thiha Yarzar was housed in cell 51, in a cell range of 60 white concrete cells with iron bars for a door. There was nothing inside but a thin bamboo mat for a bed and two ceramic bowls for a toilet.
Photo by Paul Pickrem
Graphic Design by Garrett Kostin
Photo by Paul Pickrem
Graphic Design by Garrett Kostin
Out of 140 death row prisoners, five were political prisoners with death sentences. Three of those were Thiha, his fifteen year-old brother-in-law Myo Aung, and Bamin Dhit, who gave his name and location to police after being tortured.
Four more political prisoners, who did not receive death sentences, were also jailed there as a form of mental torture.
Three other death row prisoners had been students with Thi Ha.
“How did it come to this? We just wanted to study peacefully. None of us wanted to take up arms. But, we had to fight for democracy and human rights instead. And now to end up this way… not only me but the others as well.
“Who is responsible? It is the fault of the tyrants, the military leaders. I was angry.
“But, we had no regrets. We were satisfied we had done the right thing. We were at peace.
“I was in prison. But, I was really free in my mind. I encouraged other prisoners on death row not to be afraid.”
Life was about waiting to die for those on death row.
No one had any idea how long they would remain there, or when or if they would actually be executed.
At least the filthy old clothes he had worn since his arrest were gone. Thiha and the others now wore a prison uniform made up of a white short sleeved shirt with a collar and a white longyi, or sarong.
Every Friday he was allowed two visitors from his family. His wife and mother and sister would try to comfort him.
“They cried and encouraged me. But I said, ‘I’m okay, you be careful.’”
His wife was arrested once after visiting him.
His wife’s family had to sell the small pickled tea shop they operated because people were afraid to buy from them.
His wife was a student. She was supported by her parents and his family as well. Some sympathetic politicians secretly helped the family financially.
Inside, Thiha had his share of challenges too.
Thiha Yarzar (left) sang revolutionary songs in Mae Sot, Thailand, with Burmese activists, on the 20th anniversary of the anti-government uprisings across Burma on August 8, 1988. (Photo by Paul Pickrem)
He and other prisoners were caught smuggling information to BBC Radio about prison conditions. They were sent to live in punishment cells with military dogs housed on site.
He remembers they were kept in shackles and heard the sounds of other prisoners being beaten every day.
But they made the best of their predicament.
“After a week we and the dogs became very friendly. So, we could eat their meat. The dogs had better food. We only had rice to eat.”
Thiha recounted how prison food was usually so bad they tried not to eat it.
Guards were sadistic and brutal.
Prisoners were forced to shout, “I am not human. I am just a prisoner,” while being punished.
He said prison staff organized prostitution and sold drugs to make money.
Female staff had sex for money.
Child soldiers who tried to desert but were recaptured and sent to prison, were sold to other prisoners and staff for sex by guards eager to make more money.
Thiha wanted those conditions changed and he and others used money given by outside supporters to bribe guards to buy a short wave radio and two cell phones they used to pass information about the conditions inside the prison to the outside world.
“Everyone has a responsibility for democracy and human rights, even me as a prisoner. I was still young.”
But in June of 1994 he was transferred to Taungoo Prison, Bago Division, after three years in Insein Prison. The transfer came just before other prisoners were caught with the cell phones and radios and received lengthy sentences.
Four years later, he went on a hunger strike to protest the authorities’s decision not to release him early, after they said they would.
He was forced to receive nourishment from a glucose IV and transferred to Kalay Prison, in western Burma, near the India border.
The weather was known for its extremes of hot and cold. And, it was a malaria area.
“Political prisoners who caused problems in other prisons were transferred to Kalay. It was a bad situation.
“Almost every prisoner and staff got malaria frequently and both prisoners and staff died from the disease.”
He said he got malaria in Kalay 30 times in four years-almost monthly. He was hospitalized three times.
He recounted the periods of suffering through bouts of high fever, chills and shivering, aching bones and body, vomiting, weight loss and terrible headaches.
“I was losing my mind. I had a fever of 106 degrees. I felt alone, isolated and suffered terribly with the disease.
“I cried. It was easier to deal with the torture than the malaria. It was terrible.”
During the interview, he showed a copy of a document stating the Red Cross visited him in Kalay Prison on March 29, 2000 and December 12, 2001.
He said local doctors and Red Cross officials recommended his transfer to a prison with a permanent physician and a hospital.
Military Intelligence refused.
“They said, ‘Let him stay and die here in Kalay.’”
At that time he joined in a hunger strike with 10 other prisoners, including his friend Khun Myint Tun, who is today a Member of Parliament and Labor Minister of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the exiled government formed by the National League for Democracy, after its 1991 election victory in Burma.
“Our demand was to release all political prisoners unconditionally,” he said.
“It was as if we had no rights. We were treated like animals, not like human beings.
“I was full of anger. I was becoming mentally ill… crazy.”
He and Khun Myint Tun went 21 days without food, 18 days without water.
On day 21, they went unconscious and were given an IV and flown to Taunggyi Township prison.
Twenty five days later Thiha was sent to Mai Sat Prison, in Eastern Shan State.
He was covered with a hood and beaten on arrival and dragged to solitary confinement and put in a concrete cell with no furniture and no mattress.
His personal belongings were stolen.
At night guards threatened him through the door, constantly waking him up to deprive him of sleep.
But, the spark of activism had not died out completely, even after all this time and suffering.
He wrote a letter about the conditions in the relatively small prison, which held three hundred male and female prisoners. He then tried to bribe a staff member with clothing to carry it out of the prison.
The staff member took the clothing. He did not deliver the letter.
“But, just writing it was satisfying,” he remembered. “I was trying.”
“They could destroy our body. But, they couldn’t control our mind, our soul or our spirits in prison. The oppression only caused us-forced us-to fight back.”
Thiha did fight back, but not only for his own cause.
One morning he overheard guards mistreating a prisoner in another section of the prison he could not see.
The prisoner was forced to kneel in the hot sun for two hours, while shouting, “I’m not human. I’m a prisoner!”
His crime was stealing some vegetables.
“Thiha shouted back from his cell, “Hey! Stop it! I am also a prisoner, but, I am human.”
He continued his protest until the prison’s Head Jailer came and spoke to him, to quiet him down.
The Jailer told the guards to stop the practice.
But, during six years of isolation in Mai Sat Prison, he also had to find ways to fight against gnawing depression.
During the daytime he could see a mountain in the distance, if he leaned against the wall a certain way in a standing position.
He still remembers how beautiful that mountain was to him.
“It was green, with lots of trees. I loved those trees. I imagined strolling in that forest under the shade of those trees. I touched them and hugged them. I ran like a child amongst them.”
His imagination acted as a magic carpet.
“Sometimes I couldn’t sleep day or night, for three or four days. Then, I would sleep for twenty-four hours, with no food. Sitting on the bed and leaning against the wall, I imagined the wall in front of me was a cinema screen. I saw my life. I saw my friends. I imagined watching Sean Connery as 007 and Jean- Claude Van Damme. I saw lots of movies on that wall.”
When bored, he sat with his legs through the bars of the cell door and hugged the bars with his arms.
He remembers looking up at the sky and talking to the insects and sharing rice with the birds.
“I wanted to fly like a bug,” he said.
“At night, the stars and the moon were my companions. But, my sky was very small because of the size of my window. I could just see thirteen stars. But, those thirteen stars were my best friends. I could not survive without the stars, the moon, the bugs and birds and those trees on that mountain.”
He asked favors of his companions, the bugs and the birds.
“Talk to me. Say, ‘Hello’, to my daughter,” he remembers asking them.
“Sometimes the situation was so depressing. I wanted to talk to my daughter. I talked with the bugs in my cell and talked with the stars about her.”
He recounted the experience of being isolated so long.
“The sameness, the routine is depressing. I have only the present-no past and no future.”
He remembered, “I sang at night to comfort myself.”
He used pain killers and diarrhea pills as chalk, to write poetry on the floor and walls.
“My best poem was for my daughter,” he said, passing me a handwritten copy of the poem. It is entitled, “Perfect Moment”:
Just a drop of love
Spilt from my beloved daughter’s heart
Makes the whole world full of celebration.
I walk in the clouds.
The drum in my chest is
Beating itself aloud.
The breeze is giggling.
The trees are waving their hands.
Even the rainbow
Becomes a bridge of gold.
She calls me Daddy.
I believe that
Tonight will be starry.
Just a drop of love
Spilt from my beloved daughter’s heart
Makes me feel happiness that I have never had.
The poem was written on Tone Tone’s sixteenth birthday as his present to her. It was also the day he received a letter from her in which she called him “Daddy” for the first time.
She was three months old when he was arrested and Thiha was worried they would not be able to make up for all the lost time.
But some of Thiha’s friends, who were also student activists and political prisoners, including the prominent student leader, Min Ko Naing, who had just finished serving a sixteen year sentence, intervened to help him begin to develop a relationship with her.
He said they wrote to him and said, “Don’t worry. We will take care of your daughter. We will care for her as if she were our own.”
“They were worried she had no feelings for me,” Thiha said. “They explained my story to her and encouraged her to contact me. They gave her money and a school uniform. They helped a lot. They helped me cure my mental illness about my daughter.”
He remembered his excitement when she wrote him the first time.
“I am now sixteen years old,” she wrote. “I am a tenth grade student. Take care of yourself.”
“I read it again and again,” he said.
She wrote again, three months after he replied to that first letter.
“Take care. I am ok. Now, I am learning about computers,” she said.
But, it was the word “Daddy” in her third letter that was like a miracle drug to Thiha.
“I kept it in my shirt pocket and read it again and again,” he said. “That night I wrote the poem.”
However, he began to worry about his inability to care for Tone Tone, even if he were to be released some day.
“I started to worry about my relationship with my daughter. She said she wanted to go slow with the relationship. But, when would I be released? And, what would I do for a living? Could I pay for her education?”
That worry intensified when his friends, who had been so helpful to him and his daughter, were arrested again during the Saffron Revolution in the fall of 2007.
Thiha lost all contact again with Tone Tone after that.
But, now, barely a year later, Thiha Yarzar listened carefully as Burmese military and police officials told him he would soon be on a flight to Rangoon, where he would be reunited with his beloved daughter and the rest of his family, nearly 20 years after he left his parent’s home as an exiled freedom fighter.
“It was like a dream,” he remembers of the night he drove in a taxi to his sister’s house.
Was this that old prisoner’s dream, and would be returned to prison just before waking up?
He got lost because the city streets and the neighborhood had changed so much while he was in prison. Two police cars followed the taxi as he tried to find the house he had spent so much time in as a youngster.
But, he didn’t wake up in his cell. Instead, he finally stood at his sister’s door.
When his sister, Daw Khin Mar Win, answered the door, they just stared at each other. They had not seen each other since she visited him in Insein Prison in 1992.
“She shouted, ‘Hey! This is Thiha!’ She came running to meet me, crying.”
“Mommy is here,” she told Thiha.
Thiha stared in amazement as he watched an old woman come out of the house.
“It was my mother. But, I didn’t recognize her at first,” he said.
Daw Tin Lay Myint was now 68. He remembers her hair had turned white. She was thin, but looked healthy.
“She just stared at me, as she moved slowly toward me,” he recalled.
“This is Thiha!” his sister shouted.
“They thought I was dead,” Thiha said, explaining that they had lost track of him since tracing his whereabouts to Kalay Prison.
“Mom touched me, my hair, my face, my shoulder,” he remembered vividly.
They told him the family made plans to make a contribution to a monastery in his memory just days before because they thought he was dead.
“Then, my sister asked me if I had escaped,” he remembered.
“What did you do?” she asked. “There will be a problem.”
But, Thiha eased their concerns by showing them his release papers and plane ticket.
That evening, Thiha learned of his father’s death in 1996, the year before his wife died.
He also learned how his father lost his rank in the army and was forced to retire.
“I’m very sorry,” Thiha told his mother and sister. “It was because of me.”
But, they told him, “It’s not your fault.”
“Thiha, I’m very happy to see you alive again before I die,” his mother told him.
They told him they didn’t hold out much hope to see him alive again because so many prisoners had died.
“I had seen so much death and so many families destroyed during my prison term,” Thiha said during the interview.
“And, I should have died in prison. Many others suffered so much loss on the outside and then died.”
The next day, Saturday, September 27, 2008, was the day Thiha feared might never come. He went to his wife’s parents home to meet the daughter who grew up without him.
He recalled it took him more than two hours to find the house.
Again, he got lost on the way because the city had changed so much during the years he was in prison.
When he finally arrived, his mother-in-law, Daw Shwe Yu, was sweeping leaves inside the family compound.
“Finally, Thiha is here!” she exclaimed when she saw him.
“Come and see who is here,” she called to his daughter.
Tone Tone came and stood in the doorway.
“She asked me, ‘Are you Dad?’” he remembered vividly.
“I said nothing. I had no strength to speak. I had no words.”
His mother-in-law came to him and hugged him tightly.
Then he walked to where Tone Tone was still standing in the doorway.
“I touched her hair and I touched her face, just like my Mom had done to me, the night before.
I remember thinking, ‘She is lovely, just a lovely young girl’.
He tried to hug her.
“She was cold,” he said.
“She had gotten used to not having me in her life.”
He knew then, it would take time for her to accept the fact that he was alive.
“I was disappointed. But, I also understood her reaction. I was very confused in my mind. But, I was just happy see my daughter.”
In time, Thiha tried to explain his actions in light of the political situation in Burma.
“But, she was not interested,” he said.
“Because of this I had no father during my childhood. Because of this you were imprisoned for so long. How can you understand how I feel about it all?” she asked.
“But eventually we began to understand each other’s feelings a little more,” Thiha said, looking back.
But, that struggle to understand others and be understood has become an issue in most of Thiha’s relationships, since his release. He said the survival instincts that kept him alive in prison make it difficult to trust people and communicate outside.
“I felt like-and still feel like-I came from another planet. This planet is not my home,” he said, with frustration.
“It’s like a different planet, now. The world, as I knew it, no longer exists,” he said.
“It’s difficult for us, my family, to understand each other. It is very difficult to communicate. I don’t know why.
“I ask myself, ‘Are you crazy. Are you mad?’
“There is something wrong in my relationships with other people. Nobody can understand me and I can’t understand them. I’m oversensitive. I find it hard to relax and trust people, to trust their motives. Are they making fun of me, laughing at me, being sarcastic?”
He also said he feels people distrust his motives because he is an ex¬-prisoner.
Even still, since his release he has not been quiet about his strong feelings regarding the continuation of the armed struggle for freedom inside Burma.
“The armed struggle has not been successful, but we have time to change things. We can’t win against the military government because we can’t defend ourselves.
“Armed struggle, as well as political and economic pressure will force the generals to negotiate peace. Organized armed struggle is a necessity, along with other diplomatic, political and economic means.”
He said he sees a decline in support for the Burmese pro-democracy movement since September 11, 2001, and he calls on the international community to supply the “tools for an armed struggle”, such as technology and weapons.
“There has been reluctance by the international community to get involved in the armed struggle in Burma, despite the obvious injustices.”
And, he bristles at the accusation that he and his fellow insurgents are terrorists.
“Terrorists and freedom fighters are quite different! We are freedom fighters. We do not harm innocent civilians. We are fighting against the real terrorists-the military leaders. We fight for democracy, human rights, and justice in Burma.”
Thiha Yarzar is critical of larger nations, like China, with economic interests in Burma.
“It is like they feed the poisonous snake,” he said. “And, the international community and the United Nations have all allowed the SPDC (the Burmese State Peace and Development Council) to tighten its hold on the country.
“We have tried many means to end injustice in Burma. Armed struggle is a continuation of that. It’s not fair to brand us as terrorists because we continue to fight with guns.
“We are on the revolutionary way. In any country when people attack dictators, there will be bloodshed. We can’t avoid that. We chose military government targets, not civilian targets.
“We have to do revolution to get rid of the unjust military dictators.
“I am not a killer. I wish I had a guitar instead of my pistol. I didn’t want to kill anybody. I had an order from my headquarters. We were in a battle, fighting for democracy and human rights.”
During one interview he used the analogy of the American use of nuclear weapons to bring an end to the war with Japan.
“The important thing is to win. In the battle there is not justice or injustice. We have to bring change, bring freedom and democracy ourselves. We are at war! They are very cunning. Armed struggle is necessary for us. There is no fair or unfair in war.”
Within a few days of his release, Thiha was approached by his old enemies, who sought to take advantage of his money problems.
He said he was offered a job with the SPDC propaganda wing and he was offered money to be an SPDC politician.
“They offered me money daily for two weeks. My family members were afraid.”
He said he was also followed and was attacked my members of the pro-government USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Association Party).
“That’s when I fled to Thailand,” he said.
But life in Thailand has not been without battles either.
On December 3, 2008, Thiha crossed the Moei River illegally by boat, at Myawaddy, Kayin State, entering Thailand at Mae Sot, Tak Province.
January 1, 2009, he was detained by Thai police and forced to pay 4,000 baht (Thai currency, approximately $125US), to buy his freedom.
“It’s difficult to survive in Thailand without legal documents,” he said.
He was told by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and NGOs (non- governmental organizations assisting refugees) to go to a refugee camp. So, in February 2009, he went to Umphiem Mai Camp, near Mae Sot.
“At first I thought I was free in Thailand, and the UNHCR will protect me from Thai police, and I would be invited to be resettled in a third country. But, no help from the UNHCR. They appear to do nice work. But no action.”
Soon, he moved to Mae Sot, Tak province, where he now lives. It is known by many as “The City of Exiles”.
But Thiha’s dream of a new life through resettlement has not died.
“It will help me obtain a legal identity and financial stability,” he said. “And, I can help organize Burmese and help the cause from another country by telling the Burmese story.”
The decision made by Thiha Yarzar, the young history student at Rangoon University, to pursue and defend the cause of democracy in Burma because it is the better way, and his willingness to pay the steep price to secure it, has not waivered despite long years of imprisonment and torture and suffering by him and his family.
“I did my duty and I will continue to do my duty. Every Burmese has a responsibility to struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma,” he said.
“I’m free, and I’m getting strength from the fact that I’m a free man. I will do whatever I can to continue my fight for democracy and human rights.”
As the crowd pressed the gate at the UNHCR compound in Mae Sot in May 2009, demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Burma, Thiha showed his words are not just activist bravado.
When someone was needed to lead the way by speaking up for freedom despite concerns of retaliation from Thai authorities, he stepped to the front with fire in his eyes, lit by the flames of the fire in his belly, his clenched fist punching the sky and shouted, “Free Burma!”.