Prison memoirs

“The girls and the women here wanted to hear about my time in freedom outside the prison walls, but I could not wait to share my stories about my freedom inside the prison walls.”

Ma Thida is a Burmese human rights activist, author and currently chair of PEN Myanmar. In October 1993, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for constituting “a danger to public order, and having been in contact with illegal organisations and distributing illegal literature”. She was released in 1999 on humanitarian grounds. In this issue, we publish an extract from her prison memoirs.

March 13 2014 Text: Ma Thida Illustration: Saadia Hussain

Back in the prison, Ma Chuu and the group could not believe when they saw illness-stricken me coming back into prison with angry face in less than 24 hours after saying “Bye” to them just yesterday evening. I took a rest after putting things in place without explaining the long story I had just endured. Before I could fully regain my breath a nurse came to tell me that I had to place all my medicines under prison’s clinic. They would not accept me saying “No”. Then matron of nurses herself came over and told me that this order to keep all my medicines came straight from the prison’s chief doctor. She also told me that they would come to give me medicine when I need to take them. I would not accept this. All these medicines were from my parents and I usually donated and shared with others in my building. I could not accept having to put all my own medicines in their hand since on top of being sick I did not get any treatment from them.

Then the prison’s doctor herself came over and told me with a stern face that she had to do this since I had put all responsibilities of consequences on them while at the hospital. They tried to forcibly take away my medicine basket. I used all my strength to not let of it and said as the prison staffer approached me “Well, you can confiscate these medicines if you dare. From now on, I won’t take any medicine. I won’t eat. I won’t even drink. And I won’t stay in that room. Let’s do it if you dare to challenge me. Let’s see how much a person like me who is six-month straight feverish and weighed only 80 pounds can take this on.” Both staffer and the doctor ran back to the clinic quickly without saying anything. I said to leave me alone when the prison’s cleaners approached me.

I then quickly tried to practice Vipassana which I had not been doing regularly for sometime. Main thing was that I wanted to prepare myself as I would not be able to face them again with this rambling anger and emotion in me. I tried to calm myself by giving attention to touching sense on the tip of my nose every time I breathed in and out. Vipassana which is the learning and knowledge of root causes and words of the Buddha usually rescued me in situation like this. Just as I thought, within 15 minutes, I heard the noises of “Pon Zan, Pon Zan, Pon Zan”—meaning ‘standard sitting, standard sitting, standard sitting’ continuously. I got up and sat on the bedstead. A tin door of our building swung open. The prison’s uniformed staff walked in forcefully to approach me. Some wore stern look as if they were looking for a victim furiously. Some wore consoling look as if they were teasing a victim. There were stars on their shoulders. It looked as if all the high ranking of prison had come. Among them, I saw the head of prison hospital but I did not see the prison’s chief doctor.

“What do you want” asked the prison’s warden U Tha Oo.
I bluntly answered back “One, I can’t allow to take my medicines away. Two, I won’t take any treatment from prison’s doctor here and transfer my case to another doctor.” They then told me the same thing that this had come to this because of what I said at the hospital.
“It’s nonsense. I went to hospital but got no treatment whatsoever.”
“It’s an order from above. We can’t do anything.”
“Then what is it about taking my medicines away.”
My voice was still harsh despite the fact that I was trying so hard to control my emotion. I thought this could not be happening. So I pulled all my attention to tip of my nose to remember breath in and out and tried to calm myself down more.
“That’s because you might use these medicines to kill yourself. You would be able to do so because you understand everything about medicines,” said deputy warden U Ohn Lwin with his gentle tone. Okay, I thought I found my good match to discuss.
“Oh gosh… no… Uncle” I deliberately used to address him as uncle to avoid having to use the standard terms of ‘Saya’ or ‘Htaung Pyne’—teacher or chief warden. I did this as I also wanted to get close to him and gained empathy from him as well.
“In this cell, if I wanted to die, even if you leave me naked, I can still bang my head to these cement walls to kill myself. My problem here is to stay alive and well, not to kill myself. I don’t want to die. Having had no rights to get systematic treatment for my illness, I am asking to get these two demands in order to live, Uncle”. My voice started to get stable. Suicide is illegal by law and according to the Buddha Dharma this act would not release me from Samsara—circle of life. And the consequences of this act would come for another five hundred lives. I had never thought of doing so and will never do in the future but was truly amazed at how they could come up with this thought.
“Actually, the way you all are trying to put me through is killing me, Uncle. That’s why I said that the prison must take responsible for any consequences of me not getting treatment.”
“Don’t talk a lot. You’re not that well,” said the MS of Insein Prison Hospital. I started to feel very sad.
“Please be empathised a bit, Saya. Have you ever had fever for six months continuously? Have your children been suffering like this?” Tears filled my eyes as I said those words. I thought “NO”. I must remember Vipassana. I must remember! No. Since I was not in regular practice my strength was not there and in no time tears rolled down on my cheeks.

He tried to console me by saying “Oh my dear, there is a slogan saying ‘all will be healthy in year 2000’. You’ll get better.” This had stopped my tears.
“There, it’s wrong there. It is wrong translation. Original phrase is “Health for all by the year 2000”. It is impossible to have days when everyone is healthy. We don’t have to be philosopher. It is obvious even looking from lame people’s point of view. The real meaning is every one should have health services and support by the year 2000. Every one means rich or poor, black or white, and prisoners or whoever they are, they should get or have access to health services. The only thing I ask of you is to give proper and systematic treatment for my ill health. I think you all can understand a medical doctor like me wouldn’t want to go to hospital as sick prisoner. If I get proper treatment here there is no reason I would have to complain at all. I really don’t want to go to any hospital outside like this. The problem is that a medical doctor like me knows very well that care given in this prison’s clinic is enough or not and proper or not. I know how to treat myself to be alive. That’s why I am saying to give me that kind of treatment.” I sounded like a lecturer.
“Alright then, we do understand that. We won’t take away your medicines. However, why do you have to refuse to get treatment from the chief doctor here? She is crying over there as she gets really upset,” said the prison’s deputy chief officer (DCO). Other officers were also standing there without being uptight.
“Please think about it, Uncle. It is very upsetting for me as a doctor to refuse another doctor’s treatment. It will be the last thing I would do. But this is a matter of alive and dead for me. Her treatment is seriously risking my life. She has never accepted advice and suggestion that I had offered. So if we go on like this I won’t be alive for that long. Hear me out Uncle. I would like to ask you. What would you do if your family doctor said you have only six months to live for?” By this time all of us were at ease and the situation was no longer tense.
He responded lightly by saying “Oh. Who? Me? I would go to places I would like to go. And I would eat all the food I like.” All wore a slight smile on their face.
“If I was you, I wouldn’t do that” I smiled and started my quiz for them.
“How would you do?”
“I would go and ask second opinion from another doctor. That doctor may not tell me I would die in six months.”
I heard some subdued laughing from the crowd. The prison’s DCO however wholeheartedly laughed at it out loud.
“That’s all, Uncle. I would like to go get second opinion from another doctor who won’t say I will die in six months. Let’s do this way, Saya.” By this time, I turned to Sayagyi—the MS and continued “You’ll be the one continues to look at my condition. If that is the case then I will accept it.”
“Well, Ma Thida. You’re free.” As he secretly sighed, the DCO uttered these words with his eyes lowering. “Ma Thida, you’re free.” “Ma Thida, you’re free.” Those words echoed in my ears.
I poked on the padlock that locked the door of my cell and asked “What do you mean, Uncle? Are you saying I, who being locked up behind these doors in a 12 feet square cell for 23 hours 15 minutes a day, have all the freedom?” Although I knew what he meant I asked any way.
“You can say what you think. We are just civil servants. So please do understand.” His voice faded as he spoke. Others were also so quiet that it was as if we could hear the needle dropping. I knew I should not push further.
“I would like to request you, Saya. You can definitely write an official report saying that a female prisoner is concerned that her life is in danger and refused to get treatment from a doctor on duty in prison. She requested me to give treatment for her and therefore I will be taking up this matter… something like that.” I said this by looking at him, Sayagyi—the MS.
“Alright, I will do something about this. Right now, thamee,[1] you’re tired. You should eat and then rest. We (elders) are all tired as well. So let’s go.”
“Yes. But I would not see the chief doctor till I could see the official letter from you saying you have transferred duty to yourself to care for me. I would only communicate with you and other doctors, not her.”
“Alright! Alright!”
Just like that, they all left. The face of staff on duty refreshed again. I would have to prepare and divide to share all the food my parents and Thida Oo gave me now with the others here. The girls and the women here wanted to hear about my time in freedom outside the prison walls, but I could not wait to share my stories about my freedom inside the prison walls. “Ma Thida, you’re free.” Remembering the DCO’s words, my mind recollected that have I ever lost my right to freedom of expression in this prison?



[1] Thamee is the term used by older people to younger female and it literally means daughter.