Podcast: Episode 6 ~ Political Prisoner in Burma

Shot for leading student protests where he spent the next 18 years imprisoned in Burma, Thiha tells his story of his experience being tortured, psychologically and emotionally abused, and blamed for the deaths of family members, including his father and his wife. Burma – now known as Myanmar – is ruled by a socialist dictatorship run by the military who are corrupt and control the population through extreme violence, including crushing the 8888 nationwide and pro-democratic student uprising and other massacres including the Rohingha genocide and the murders of Rakhines buddhists and monks. After being released, he fled to Thailand where there is no official legal framework for asylum seekers as they are not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, leaving many refugees vulnerable to homelessness, prison and threats of deportation. There, he met his Australian wife and now lives in Australia, but still struggles with life after spending so long in horrendous conditions in Burma.

When I first started my undergraduate degree at 18, I absolutely hated the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard. Admittingly, I appreciated his decision on banning guns early during his ministry,  but as time progressed and more and more bad policy choices were being made, I started to doubt his ability to represent the Australian people. While the September 11 attacks changed the international landscape and the foreign relationships we had, banning guns would have likely pissed off the republicans in America who make billions of dollars on international arms sales and who would have likely increased the pressure for Australia to adapt to their requirements.

His ridiculous involvement in the war in Iraq – well, we say war, but it actually was an invasion given the deliberate false intelligence used to justify it – that ultimately cost Australian lives and billions of dollars. Let’s not forget the increase in inequality in Australia because of income tax breaks for the wealthy and the pressure on the lower-middle class particularly with housing affordability, not to mention increasing funding to private schools while starving public school of any support, he devastated the medicare system in an attempt to push the public towards private health insurance, increasing the costs of university fees and, I think the final tipping point that frustrated all Australians was his disgusting industrial-relations policies that made jobs less secure, stripped employee rights and ultimately ensured pressure to work in unfair conditions. The list literally goes on, and these policies which still effect us till this day, show how obvious it was that he was trying to turn Australia into America.

As a member of the students against war and racism, we protested, we lobbied, we called out his monstrous policies, we called him a bastard and despite feeling frustrated and unheard especially since the majority of the Australian public was against the war in Iraq and last I checked we lived in a democracy and the prime minister is supposed to represent what the people want, we nevertheless felt safe to come together and collectively protest, to say what we felt, to have a political voice and be part of the decision making process. This is called, in human rights language, freedom of association.

Something my next guest understands all to well, a man who spent 18 years in prison and lost a lot more than his own human rights and dignity because of his dedication toi social justice and equality. His tale of survival, from his arrests and his experience of persecution, starvation and violence by the Burmese Military regime is a sad reminder that not everyone is as lucky as we are to voice our political concerns.

After world war two, where Japan had invaded Burma and later liberated by Britain, the first several years was immediately met with political challenges where the interim government leader Aung San – father of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – and several other politicians were assassinated by nationalist rival Galon U Saw in 1947.  In 1948, Burma became independent with U Nu as prime minister, until the early 1960s where signals of frustration by the military led to a military coup leading to the totalitarian regime that abolished the federal system for a socialist program that almost immediately destroyed any hope for democracy, banning independent newspapers, forming a single-party system and killing thousands. In the 1970s, minority groups formed the opposition national democratic front in support of democracy and opposing the military dictatorship.

It only gets worse, where in the 1980s, currency devaluation meant that any life savings that citizens had no longer had any value and so people no longer had money, leading to riots and protests where thousands of people were killed and eventually led to full-blown martial law that arrested thousands of human rights advocates and ordinary people frustrated at the loss. Burma is renamed Myanmar at this point. In 1990, after being under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy wins in the first general election that the military refused to acknowledge, and she remains under house arrest. The Rogingya genocide murdered tens of thousands of Muslims lead by the military and local Buddhists in northern Myanmar. Human Rights Watch reported that there were over 50 labour camps for political prisoners and 43 prisons holding political activists and journalists who are tortured, hungered and intimidated in dreadful conditions, malnourished by rotting food, beatings, and small, dark cells filled with prisoners.

After spending 18 years in a Burmese prison, the psychological trauma both in terms of his experience in prison, but also witnessing the violence and atrocities committed prior to that, he was released in 2008. He tried to re-connect with his family, but the world had changed, money was different, all in ways more devastating than he thought. Family had died, and he was blamed for their deaths because being pro-democratic, he brought danger to his family and his daughter, now grown, refused to see him. He was also asked to participate in propaganda by the military regime by admitting his faults, which he refused and ultimately fled to the Thai border. UNHCR refused to acknowledge that he was a refugee because Thailand is not a signatory and ultimately lived illegally in the country where he faced numerous challenges and threats of deportation.

Until he met his Australian wife, a PhD student living in the border area and was soon enough granted a humanitarian visa and arrived into Australia to start his new life. While he tried his best to start a new life, a new family, new work, the trauma of his experience still haunts him. This is the story of Thiha and his experience as a political prisoner in Burma. 

Read more about Thiha here and his book No Easy Road: A Burmese Political Prisoner’s Story by Paul Pickrem.