Burmese Prison Days

The Poet Of Keng Tung Jail   A  Bangkok Post Publication: Sunday 6 February 1983                                                               [Author’s note: Taworn’s poems were first published in the Bangkok Post on Jan 10, 1982. A year later 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 freefood for no work here, even when yousleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha haha!” 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 monthsin jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately thewriter, who also ranafoul ofthe Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced tosix 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 himsemi-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 blackened 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 painfrom their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.                       

prisoner shackled                                                             prisoner shackled 2           

     

A score of Prisoners shackled at any one time, is a common sight in Keng Tung Jail  –  sketches from ABSDF 1996 publication   ‘Cres From Insein’

Severe and brutal beatings by the guards were the standard punishments for breaking prison rules. It was very effective in keeping the prisoners in line because of its brutality. At the slightest sign of infringement – like fighting, stealing or taking drugs or being a captured communist and rebel – the culprit is clamped at the ankles with an iron rod, the thickness of a thumb and eight to fifteen inches long.

The poor chap was then made to leap-frog round the prison compound with at least three prison guards (sometimes more) kicking, punching and striking with rattan canes from behind. The iron rods would cut into the flesh, compounding the agony. The only relief came when he passed out. Fellow prisoners would carry him back to the cell and a heavy wooden block with two holes was clamped on his legs. 

The record in Keng Tung was four rods clamped on a Lahu named Wallis Koh – an ex mercenary captain who fought for the CIA in Laos. He was accused of being the leader of a group attempting an abortive  jail break.                                       Two prisoners working outside the wall escaped on New Year’s Day 1978. One was recaptured at the town hospital, three weeks later and was severely beaten before being brought back and leg-clamped. He was lucky though his face smashed and bloodied. His fellow escapee was caught a few days later and brought back to jail to be punished. He was made to leapfrog several lapses and trashed so severely that he collapsed.

 The guards made him sit up but the body would topple over. His fellow escapee was asked to hold up his head while a guard went behind and slammed his knee behind the victim’s head, like kicking a football.  There was a horrible loud scream. His head was smashed leaving a two inch gash behind the brain. The head was later shaved by fellow prisoners as the victim lie motionless in the wooden clamp and some antiseptic solution applied.      

Less than half of the of the jail population 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, ngapi (blachan in Malay), 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 isthe 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 meager salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

The food situation was so bad that a lot of the prisoners were willing to sell their blood for about a kilo and a half of beef and offal. Sometimes they would come in the middle of the night to extract the blood. This meant the government troops had suffered heavy casualties and heavy fighting going on with the communist, Shan and other ethnic rebel groups.

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some food-stuff 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 organization. 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 fall

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         

                                                                                            – Km Gooi/Taworn              

 [This was my verse that started it all. Taworn added the fourth stanza which brought out the soul and pain of life in jail which he called ‘this square world’. I didn’t realize at the time that such literary pursuits were a safeguard of our mental health and an antidote against the wretchedness/horrors of the environment. I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me, been 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! The rest of Taworn’s poems were originally written in Thai, and translated by the author.]               

 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

            Manybenefits

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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