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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma No. 6

Mainichi Daily News, Sunday, December 31, 1995

"Young Birds Outside Cages"

Letter from Burma (No. 6) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	There is a well-known book by Ludu U Hla, one of the foremost literary
figures of modern Burma, about the heart-rending fate of young prisoners.
The title of this book translates literally as Caged Young Birds or Young
Birds Inside Cages.  During the last seven years many young people have been
put into the prisons of Burma for their part in the democracy movement.  But
it is not about them that I would like to write today, it is about the other
young people, those who are left outside when one, or in a few cases both,
of their parents are imprisoned for their political beliefs.
	Throughout the years of my house arrest my family was living in a freed
society and I could rest assures that they were economically secure and safe
from any kind of persecution.  The vast majority of my colleagues who were
imprisoned did not have the comfort of such an assurance.  They knew well
that their families were in an extremely vulnerable position, in constant
danger of interrogations, house searches, general harassment and
interference with their means of livelihood.  For those prisoners with young
children it was particularly difficult.
	In Burma those who are held to endanger state security can be arrested
under a section of the law that allows detention without trials for a
maximum period of three years.  And prisoners who have not been tried are
not entitled to visits from their families.  A number of political prisoners
who were placed in jail for their part in the democracy movement were kept
without trial for more than two years.  For more than two years they did not
see their families at all.  Only after they were tried and sentenced were
they allowed family visits: these visits, permitted once a fortnight, lasted
for a mere 15 minutes at a time.
	Two years is a long time in the life of a child.  It is long enough to
forget a parent who has vanished from sight.  It is long enough for boys and
girls to grow up into young adolescents.  It is long enough to turn a
carefree youngster into a troubled human being.  Fifteen minutes once a
fortnight is not enough to reverse the effects on a child of the sudden
absence of one of the two people to whom it has habitually looked for
protection and guidance.  Nor is it enough to bridge the gap created by a
long separation.
	A political prisoner failed to recognize in the teen-ager who came to see
him on the first family visit after more than two years in detention the
young son he had left behind.  It was a situation that was familiar to me.
When I saw my younger son again for the first time after a separation of two
years and seven months he had changed from a round faced
not-quite-12-year-old into a rather stylish "cool' teen-ager.  If I had met
him in the street I would not have known him for my little son.
	Political prisoners have to speak to their families through a double
barrier of iron grating and wire netting so that no physical contact is
possible.   The children of one political prisoner would make small holes in
the netting and push their fingers through to touch their father.  When the
holes got visibly large the jail authorities had them patched up with thin
sheets of tin.  The children would start all over again trying to bore a
hole through to their father: it is not the kind of activity one would wish
for any child.
	I was not the only woman political detainee in Burma: there have been --
and their still remain -- a number of other women imprisoned for their
political beliefs.  Some of these women had young children who suddenly
found themselves in the care of fathers worried sick for their wives and
totally unused to running a household.  Most of the children, except for
those who were too young to understand what was going on, suffered from
varying degrees of stress.
	Some children who went to elitist schools found that their schoolmates
avoided them and that even teachers treated them with a certain reserve: it
did not do to demonstrate sympathy for the offspring of political prisoners
and it was considered particularly shocking if the prisoner was a woman.
Some children were never taken on visits to prison as it was thought the
experience would be too traumatic for them so for years they were totally
deprived of all contact with their mothers.  Some children who needed to be
reassured that their mothers still existed would be taken on a visit to the
prison only to be deeply disturbed by the sight of their mothers looking wan
and strange in their white jail garb.
	When the parents are released from prison it is still not the end of the
story.  The children suffer from a gnawing anxiety that their fathers and
mothers might once again be taken away and placed out of their reach behind
several barriers of brick and iron.  They have known what it is like to be
young birds fluttering helplessly outside the cages that shut their parents
away from them.  They know that there will be security for their families as
long as freedom of thought and freedom of political action are not
guaranteed by the law of the land.


This is one of a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese translation of
which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the previous day in
some areas.