Poet of keng Tung Jail Part II

Part II: The Poet Of Keng Tung Jail – Bangkok Post,  Sunday 6 February 1983 [Author‘s note: A year after Taworn’s poems were published on Jan 10, 1982  Post editor, Kanjana Spindler, suggested an encore edition with more detail of the poet and condition in Burmese jail because of inquiries from readers]

Cigar

One cigar, think not it’s little
value
More than fifty baht without
sincerity
One cigar friendship goes
Far
They give with an open heart
Friends from foreign and distant
lands
Where are they from?
Many places to go, this square
world
My learned friend find a better life
to lead
A happy free society your
Jail can be

They call him the mad Thai. By all accounts, Taworn Nootwong, a Thai national aged about 42, who wrote this poem is believed still to be in jail. Four years have gone by since we parted company. There is a dreadful possibility that the atrocious conditions and tough prison life has taken its toll on Taworn. His health and life were precarious and he might not have lasted very long unless he were freed.

When our paths first crossed way back in the dry hot months of 1977, I had no idea that this strange Thai is a highly learned man who writes beautiful poems as well. The inmates of  Keng Tung jail in the Shan State of Burma where Taworn is incarcerated, say he is mad. Very little is known about him and he is shunned by other prisoners.

“Don’t talk to him, you are wasting your time,” warned the prisoners. “He has been here too long, the prison has made him crazy. Nobody can talk to him. If you talk about the east he answers about the west. You will go mad yourself if you keep on talking to him.”

Some people say Taworn is mad, that he does not want to go home or that he has committed a grievous crime back in Thailand. Others say he has lost his identity papers and cannot go home. From Taworn himself nothing much can be learned because he only laughs and wallows in his madness. His favorite diatribe is tinged with sarcasm:

“Why should I go home. There is free food for no work here, even when you sleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha ha ha!” he bursts out laughing and walks away whenever someone shows concern for him. Because of his attitude people leave him alone, nobody bothers him. Even the tough prison guards stay away from him.

There are various reasons for Taworn’s purported madness. According to the accounts of other prisoners, he was sentenced in 1974 to six months in jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately the writer, who also ran afoul of the Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced to six months imprisonment, was released after spending only one year in jail.

The Keng Tung jail is a square area surrounded by four high walls each about 100 yards long. An inner barb wire fence interspersed with rose bushes keeps the prisoners from getting near the wall. Old time residents of Keng Tung remember that it was built by the British and designed to hold about 200 prisoners.

In 1977 there were over 500 prisoners kept in four big cells in the jail. Each cell measures about 20 feet by 150 feet and houses between 100 and 150 prisoners. They sleep on two rows of planks, raised three feet above the dirt floor, side by side, packed like sardine.

The conditions in Keng Tung jail could without exaggeration be described as appalling. Ten people died during the ten months I was interned there.

Che Peh was a Lahu boy aged about 19 who came in to serve two years for theft. He came in healthy and normal but he never left. After six months in jail he contracted some deadly virus which made him semi-paralyzed and his speech incoherent. At the end of November 1977 (his 18th month in jail) during the cold season, he was lying on a filthy rag covered with a filthy blanket in the bright sunlight in the prison compound.

He was unable to move or even turn his body. The only sign of life was when he blinked his eyes. There were feces all over the lower part of his body, flies swarming all over him covering his face and eyes. His mouth was foaming. His face had been blacken by days of lying in the open sun. Finally the authorities took him out to the town hospital where he died that same afternoon.

Another Lahu lad died of constipation, screaming until his last breath in the cell. Due to some strange, deadly and unidentified disease, he could not defecate. After a few weeks his body got bloated and his face all puffy. In his last hour he was groaning in great pain.

His fellow Lahus tried to no avail to help by wiping his anus which was covered with hideous sores, with wet rags. It was a relief for all when his screams and groans stopped and his stiff body was unceremoniously taken out in a gunny sack and buried in a vegetable garden outside the jail.

The rest of the dead were mostly old tribal opium addicts who used the drug for 15 to 20 years or more. When these enter the jail, they are thrown into the dirtiest corner of the cell. And in that corner they lay all day and night, groaning in pain from their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.

Nobody pays much attention to them for the prisoners are hardened to the sight. By the third or fourth or at the most the fifth week they will certainly die. The bodies are taken out by the other prisoners and buried in a hole outside the prison.

Less than half the population of the jail were made to work. People like Taworn and me who violated the immigration law are automatically exempted from work; though seemingly a privilege, in reality this is a disadvantage. Workers enjoy privileges such as taking a bath once a day – while non workers can only take a bath once every four days – and have a cup of watery rice broth in the morning.

People who work in the carpentry and blacksmith workshops have access to fire where water is boiled and sold to the other prisoners for two cheroots a milk tin. Others can steal some extra food from the kitchen and vegetable plot when they are working there. Non workers are left to idle day in and day out without anything to do.

The prisoners are fed twice a day – stale, yellowish broken rice, with a bowl of yellow pea soup in the morning (10 am) and a bowl of boiled radish leaves for the afternoon meal. A spoonful of shrimp paste, ‘nga pi’ (blachan), is added to each meal as relish. Once a week a piece of meat (pork or beef), one and half inch cube, is given. Sometimes small river fish is given in lieu of the meat.

Fortunately visitors are allowed twice a week. On these important days, friends and relatives of the prisoners bring much coveted food, cheroots, clothing and medicine. it is the food that sustains the prisoners. All the food brought in by the visitors is first checked by the wardens; in the process a portion is usually extorted. The prison guards live off the prisoners because they could not survive on their meagre salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some foodstuff and cheroots. A crowd then gathered around Taworn and within minutes all his food and cheroots were given away.

“Why do you do that?” someone asked.
“For years I have been smoking other people’s cheroot, now I can give instead of take!” Taworn roared out laughing. Sadly enough, many people mistook his admirable generosity as a confirmation of his madness.

Tall, dark and broad shouldered,Taworn is also very myopic. His thick glasses make him conspicuous among the prisoners and give him a scholarly look. he speaks and writes Thai, English and Burmese. Someone says he is married and has children in Bangkok, he was once a sergeant in the Thai Navy. No one has a clue as to why he is not released.

Taworn’s predicament was first reported in the now defunct Business Times (a Bangkok English Daily). Early last year his poems were published in Bangkok Post.

Amnesty International took an interest in his case in 1978. but so far nothing  has been done by the organisation. One of its officials said recently, “Burma is a very secretive country, there is nothing much we can do.”Trying to talk to Taworn is a lesson in exasperation and frustration. “Nonsensical” or “weird” or “totally mad” is the manner the prisoners described his speech. “He speaks good English” is the only positive remark about him.I found out that the best way to communicate with Taworn is through a piece of paper. To pass the time in jail I had decided to learn more of the Thai language from Taworn. I asked him to translate some English words and sentences into Thai. He would translate the words and phrases and eventually expand on the contents filing up the page with poetic verses.In the dreadful confinement of the prison Taworn would write and write filling up any piece of paper he could lay hands on. On a single word or phrase like ‘roses’, ‘Burmese cigars’, ‘high walls’, he would write verse after verse, filling up all corners of the paper. In such literary pursuits we spent many fruitful hours together. I realized that in his tormented mind here was a poet of the first order.Reading Taworn’s poems one is at once struck by their intense feelings and originality. Taworn is no armchair poet. His inner thoughts and pains are expressed truly and unpretentiously. Unfortunately paper was scarce in the prison (there wasn’t even toilet paper, old rags and strips of bamboo were used as substitute); some of the poems written on pieces of cigarette wrappers were lost. I managed to keep some of the work and got them out of Keng Tung jail.The Rose of Keng Tung

Within the high walls so grim
Rows of roses could be seen
Nest to barb wires and old bricks
Sprouting shades of green

June and July, the dry heat gone
Little buds, a bloom appear.
When August rain comes
They sprout red and pink
Covering the bush a score
or more

At dawn they are best
When dew drops like jewels on
virgin petals
I can’t resist to bend down and
sniff
What sweet fragrance.

Days have gone to weeks

Weeks have gone to months
Years have come to past
My most beloved Rose whom thou
wait for

Within the high walls so grim
The rose of Keng Tung blooms
supreme

[I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me greatly touched. As the ancient Chinese scholars believe, ‘one can only transcend the ordinary and write good poetry when one has tasted the bitterness of life’. Happy Reading! ]

January
Cold fog falls like a carpet, over Keng Tung Jail  /The sun is late at dawn, slowly releases the cold 

The sky is low, the land is high – the aeroplane is white /Winter wind blows and rustle, little birds walk on ground/flying to and fro

The sparrows come out to sing, a love song /the prisoners come out to sing, a farewell song

From Penang you came to listen /to a Burmese song

my dreams if, will sing a waiting song

Paper Book

Book is knowledge…..it’s OK to read                                                                                    We rather prefer not to                                                                                                              put Thought into it

Thai books, English books…..fluency                                                                                         Achieved                                                                                                                             Wrapping paper looks good, has                                                                                        Many  benefits 

Cheap books establish…..clearly                                                                                              in the Mind                                                                                                                         Expensive books conceal, proverbs                                                                                    and pleasantries                                                                                                                         

Lost books distribute…..surprise is exchanged                                                            with pleasure                                                                                                                                Oral books for the ears to listen                                                                                               Spread Humanity

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