Tracey Barnett
Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Anger for those denied the luxury of sentiment


The cafe owner kindly opened up the darkened garden just for the three of us.

The night air felt like a salve. To be honest, I was a bit burned out from my day in the town of Mae Sot, along the Thai-Burmese border.

One after another, the former Burmese political prisoners had sat down to tell me their story. I wasn't sure I could stomach another human illustration of the crushing brutality of Burma's military regime that has gone unchecked for almost two generations.

That morning I had already interviewed my translator for the evening, Zulu, a former masters student in physics. She had been locked away for nearly six years over a student protest. Much of that time she spent in solitary confinement. She didn't have it so bad, she said.

The most famous comedian in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is serving 35 years in solitary confinement because he delivered aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis against the junta's wishes.

By the evening, I didn't know if I even wanted to hear the story of the thin, angular man who sat next to us, barely touching his coffee. Ko Soe Lwin had been arrested as a boy at age 12, along with 14 other children.

His crime was handing out leaflets. The junta wanted to use their arrest to scare other children from doing something similar.

He was sentenced to 24 years and 3 months in prison. He has spent more of his life in prison than as a free man, having been released early after growing up in jail for 15 years. He still bears the scars of his boyhood torture.

He is deaf in one ear, has malformed ribs from beatings, broken teeth, scars from hot, melted plastic poured over his legs.

He remembers the needles and pins put under his finger and toe nails as the most painful thing he experienced.

He was 13 when they did this to him. He was angry then, but never afraid. His father taught him that after the initial interrogation, the violence would be over. It wasn't true. One boy died in interrogation.

After two to three years, he stopped missing his family. He tried to forget them; otherwise he knew "he would be in trouble".

The day he was to be released, a man who he had eaten with every day for nine years cried. His friend is still serving a 32-year sentence. When he returned home, family and friends were pulled in for questioning.

He knew he had to leave to keep those he loved safe.

He now struggles as an illegal in Thailand, a stateless man with no passport, an unknown home, an unknown future.

He regrets losing his youth and his education - but not prison.

"I have a masters in prison," he smiled. He doesn't think he will see this regime fall in his lifetime, yet he is only 29 years old.

There is one phrase I kept seeing repeated in my notes from each man and woman I talked to, something he uttered to me then: "I am not angry."

He is not angry about citizens forced into being labourers and porters for government troops or having to pay steep bribes, village by village, to avoid it. He is not angry that Burma's most revered monks, who tried to rebel against the regime's brutality just a few years ago, now litter its jails.

He is not angry about others who will give up years of their lives in prison for condemning recent sham elections, or Aung Sung Suu Kyi's tenuous release after having spent most of the last two decades under house arrest - all so the military can pry loose decades of Western sanctions. Amazed, I asked why.

He said simply: "It is not effective."

I sat on my teak chair, quiet. Not because I wanted to be but because I didn't trust myself to talk. I chose my home. I had not one, but two passports in my luggage. I have the freedom to make more choices in one year than this man has had in 15. I was born in, and now live in a country that not only allows me to say what I think but values that freedom enough to reward me with a job whose sole purpose is to express my voice. He gave up everything just to hold a leaflet in his hand.

I was his polar opposite. I tried to tell him this, but my voice broke. It wasn't from pity.

I suddenly understood that the difference between us wasn't governments or fate - or being "unlucky" as they called it.

It was not his childhood that was stolen. It was the essence, the core of what kills hope.

Out of my place of incredible privilege, my utter freedom to speak about what these people cannot, I could feel one thing only - the anger they had lost.
Twitter @TraceyBarnett

- NZ Herald

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