Behind Bars

There are over 10 million prisoners in the world. A small percentage is a real danger to society. The others consist of those who suffer from addictions, poverty, ethnic ‘cleansing,’ gang violence and coercion, prejudice, scapegoats, and last but certainly not least, those who stand up against government corruption and dishonesty in the stead of populations looking for the right to live without suffering: political prisoners.

Myanmar has sustained a significant number of political prisoners since 1962, when General Ne Win instated a socialist union and thousands were displaced, orphaned, murdered, raped or held in solitary confinement. What better reasons exist to take up arms and fight? But students did not. They marched, circulated information, spoke out, and joined student unions. At age 14, San Zaw Htway witnessed the 8/8/88 protests in Yangon. At 16, he was a youth member of the National League of Democracy. Nine years later, having been active in demonstrations and calls for parliamentary assembly, he was picked up at a teashop in Ahlone Township, Yangon and sentenced to 36 years in prison. He was 25 years old.

I will not hide my emotion or complete humility at his and his comrades’ courage. At 25, I was working as an art consultant in Alexandria, VA, trying to convince people to spend 10,000 USD on a painting. Reading about Myanmar in the newspapers and the political strife, it was not possible for me to identify with those who sat in isolation with only stagnant air and moldy walls as company. However, last week, I had the opportunity to meet San Zaw Htway, former political prisoner, released one year and one week ago. An Italian friend had noticed his work in Pansodan Gallery. He described it as “bits of trash and paper made to create a landscape.” One picture depicted the copper mine in Monwya where regular protests are currently taking place. He asked if I would like to accompany him in meeting San Zaw Htway to his home.

In the taxi, SZH pointed out the exact location where he was picked up by the police. Thirteen years in prison and his face is still young and handsome. He showed us an impressive collection of work he did in prison. Never trained in the arts, he began using coffee mix packets and bits of colorful trash from the prison grounds to make intricate landscapes and portraits. He spoke of some of his prison mates in Taungoo Prison. They asked him to create landscapes of the sea, which many of them had never laid eyes on. SZH was happy to oblige as he is originally from Mon State and has strong childhood memories of the ocean.

It is quite a collection of work, and even more impressive when he describes how it distracted him from the years of loneliness, boredom and isolation. Not altogether hardened by the experience, he spoke of what remains to be done in the communities of Myanmar. The fight for policy changes, educational programs, and constitutional reform is far from over, he implied. He continues to do his part by teaching children about recycling plastic products and using them to make pictures. He is also interested in getting corporations to change the way they produce plastics and market them to the poor. Single servings of shampoo and coffee packets are cheap but unfriendly to the neighborhoods and streets of Yangon.

His parents, whom we also had the pleasure of meeting, are so obviously thrilled that their son is home safe and sound, albeit a bit worried about his collection of plastics around the house. Nevertheless, his mother often asks him what colors he needs before she goes out to run errands.

That same day, we met with Zaganar and Zaw Thet Htwe, founders of House of Media and Entertainment. Both were also imprisoned for their political activism and upon their release (Zaw Thet Htwe and San Zaw Htway were released on the same day as they were being held together at Taungoo) continue their fight. San Zaw Htway is now active in the arts and has exhibited at Lokonat, Pansodan and Myanmar Ink Art Gallery. He also writes poetry and has done some performance art. Zaw Htet Htwe not only runs publishing/meeting house HOME but also has written an account of his activism and his prison life.

In my years of research on the arts of Myanmar, many have asked me why there are not more immediate or direct political message in the creative arts. My opinion is that people prefer to see or experience the meaning of suffering through the arts rather than have to understand where it comes from and how to effect change. There is an issue of self-censorship but that is a question for another day. The truth is that political messages are all around. History lives in every heart and mind. Art does not necessarily seek to explain the World, it often ‘interrogates’ it, as Barthes said. These two activists connect with creativity and use it to interrogate their own experiences  – why did they happen and what can be done to prevent similar situations from happening again? We the audience should explore their motives, not the meanings of their actions.

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