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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #38

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, August 26, 1996


"Death in Custody (2)"

Letter from Burma (No. 38) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	The death certificate of U Hla Than, NLD member of Parliament for the Coco
Islands who died on Aug. 2 as a political prisoner of the present military
regime of Burma, stated that he had died of "extensive Koch's lung
[tuberculosis] and HIV infection."  Coincidentally on the day of his death,
extracts from a report on conditions in Burmese prisons by a former student
activist who had served time in the infamous Insein Jail where U Hla Than
was incarcerated for nearly six years, appeared in The Nation newspaper of
Bangkok.  The report states that owing to drug abuse "there is ... a high
prevalence of HIV/AIDS in prisons.  When administering injections, the
doctors give only half or less than half of the phial to one patient, giving
the rest to another patient from the same needle and syringe, almost
guaranteeing that any blood-carried infections will spread."  There can be
little doubt that U Hla Than's death was brought about by the abysmal prison
conditions that do not bear scrutiny by independent observers.  The ICRC
left Burma in 1995 because of the refusal of the authorities to allow
inspection of the prisons of the country.
	U Hla Than is certainly not the first prisoner of conscience to have died
in the custody of SLORC.  Some leading members of the NLD can be counted
among those who have given their lives for the right to adhere to their
deeply held political principles.  The first of those was U Maung Ko who,
ironically, died during the visit of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, who had been sent by
the United Nations Human Rights Commission to make enquiries into the human
rights situation in Burma.  U Maung Ko, 52 at the time of his death, was a
civil servant who worked in the Rangoon Port Commissioner's Office before he
entered the democracy movement in 1988 as the general secretary of the Dock
Workers' Union.  When the NLD was founded he became one of the pioneer
members of the party.
	U Maung Ko was arrested and taken to Insein Jail during the crackdown on
democracy activists in October 1990.  In less than three weeks, on Nov. 9,
he was dead.  His family learnt of his death from workers at the Rangoon
General Hospital, where his body was sent from Insein Jail.  The authorities
claimed U Maung Ko had taken his own life after making a confession of his
activities, but neither the content of the confession nor the circumstances
under which it was extracted have been revealed.  Many question the verdict
of suicide.  Friends and members of the family who saw U Maung Ko's body
before burial assert that there were many marks on it to indicate that he
had been badly tortured.
	The next NLD victim among the political prisoners of SLORC was U Ba Thaw,
better known as the writer Maung Thaw Ka. /Hsaya/ (the Burmese equivalent of
/sensei/, or teacher) Maung Thaw Ka, as he was affectionately addressed by
friends, colleagues and admirers, was an unforgettable character.  He served
in the Burmese Navy for many years and was involved in a shipwreck in 1956
while serving as the commanding officer on a coast guard cutter patrolling
the southeastern coastline.  When his vessel foundered, Lt. Ba Thaw and the
26 other navy personnel on board transferred to two inflated rubber life
rafts.  One life raft was lost with all nine passengers on board but the
second life raft was rescued by a Japanese ship 12 days later.  By then,
seven of the 18 men on the life raft were dead and other man died on the
rescue ship.  Maung Thaw Ka wrote a gripping book about the harrowing time
he and his mates spent under a searing sun on the small life raft, which
carried only boiled sweets and water sufficient to keep 10 men alive for
three days.
	Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka's irrepressible sense of humor came across in many of
his writings, which could perhaps be described as satire without malice.
One of his witticisms became highly popular during the years of socialist
rule in Burma.  On being told that a fellow writer believed in ghosts, Hsaya
Maung Thaw Ka riposted: "He believes in anything, he even believes in the
Burmese Socialist Programme party!"
	Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka was also a poet.  He not only wrote his own poetry, he
translated many poems from English to Burmese, some of which were
surprisingly romantic: the love poetry of Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, John
Donne and Shelley.  There was also a translation of William Cowpers' "The
Solitude of Alexander Selkirk," which he said was dedicated to himself.
Perhaps it was the last verse that appealed to him.

	"But the seafowl is gone to her nest,
	The beast is laid down in his lair;
	Even here is a season of rest,
	And I to my cabin repair.
	There is mercy in every place,
	And mercy, encouraging thought!
	Gives affliction a grace
	And reconciles man to his lot."

	But there was no mercy for Hsaya Maung Thaw Ka in Insein Jail.

* * *
(This article is part of a yearlong series of letters.  The Japanese
translation appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the previous
day in some areas.)