From Burmese Jail to meeting the Tunku Part I

Waiting For The Tunku

by Kim Gooi

“Being humble and respectful does not mean that one loses one’s social standing and identity in life; in fact it stresses one’s good character and class.”– Tunku


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 will sing

a waiting song


Journalists, such as myself, are taught not to make assumptions. Things are often not what they seem at first sight; there can be stories within stories.

prisoner shackledFor example, if I were to tell you that the lines of poetry above were taken from a journalistic memoir I wrote called “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail”, you might assume that I had arranged to visit the jail on assignment. However, I was not a visiting journalist. I was myself a prisoner in Keng Tung. Who, then, is the “Poet?” Me, perhaps? But the lines are not mine. They are an excerpt from a poem called “January”, written by a Thai prisoner called Taworn.


The other prisoners had warned me that Taworn was mad and I should avoid him, but that, too, was a false assumption. Taworn was far from mad. Tall, broad-shouldered and myopic, he peered at the world from behind thick glasses and an even thicker silence, broken by outbursts of laughter or sarcasm or sudden generosity that puzzled those around him.  Even the prison guards avoided Taworn.

But he was an educated, scholarly man who spoke three languages. I asked him to teach me Thai, jotting downindividual words in English on scrap material and cigarette papers for him to translate. Taworn did not stop at translation, however. He filled the space with strangely beautiful, original poems that blossomed like flowers from the buds of the single words I had given him.Taworn was the poet of Keng Tung Jail, and his friendship helped keep me sane in this most insane of environments.

Perhaps I should now lay to rest the unspoken question of what terrible crime I had committed to land me behind bars in the first place. My crime was inexperience, more than anything else.

I was a young photojournalist, based in Bangkok. Things had been going fairly well in the 6 or 7 months since I had arrived there in early 1977. I had just completed a photo essay for Asia Magazine on migrant workers at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. Now, my friends encouraged me to look further afield.Why not go north to Burma and do a story there? It was very much in the news. It was a chance to take great photos and cement my reputation.

So I travelled to Mae Sai, the most northerly town in Thailand, and crossed over into Tachileik on the Burmese side. The authorities in Burma would generally turn a blind eye to Thais who walked across the border during daylight hours in order to trade and barter with the Burmese locals, as long as they did not stay overnight.

I saw no reason why I could not blend in with these daytrippers. My features, at a glance, could pass as Thai; indeed my mother was from Trang in southern Thailand. On that score, I was probably right. I fit right in. But my camera equipment did not. Tachileik wasdominated by simple folk from both sides of the border, haggling over produce. What ordinary Thai could afford a camera, and why come here, of all places? As I openly snapped pictures of the tribal Burmese, dressed in their colourful costumes and selling their wares on the ground, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The stares became whispers, the whispers reached the authorities, and within a few hours, I was arrested.

The Burmese authorities were already jittery in any case. Tachileik lies in Shan State, a region then filled with constant rumblings of insurgency and rebellion. By 1978, 20 to 30 casualties were suffered daily in Shan State alone in battles between government and rebel forces. A foreigner with a camera and uncertain motives would have done little to soothe their nerves.

My interrogation went on for hours. They went through my life history from the day I was born until the day I entered Burma.For me, it was like reciting a verbal autobiography.I soon discovered that while slipping across the border was deemed all right if you were Thai, it was certainly not all right if you were Malaysian. The obvious fact that I had no ill intent counted for nothing. I was sentenced to six months jail for violating immigration laws, to be deported from Burma on completion of my sentence.

It was this misfortune that led me to a stroke ofgood fortune, on a strange journey that took me from the most notorious prison in Burma to the living room of Tunku Abdul Rahman, father of Malaysian independence.


Life and Death in the Square World

I spent a full year jailed in Burma, not six months. Red tape and inefficiency doubled my sentence. I was told that my deportation had to be via the capital, Rangoon, but “the transfer papers are not ready”. They were never ready. Nothing much worked properly, in that era in Burma.

So I endured ten monthsof that year in Keng Tung Jail, 650 miles from Rangoon, where I watched ten men die before my eyes, and the last two months in Rangoon’s brutal Insein Prison, once the largest jail in the British Empire, where some prisoners were driven to eating rats just to survive.

But there was an easy cure for self-pity, in circumstances like these.

All I had to do was look around me.

There were those in pain, undergoing the savage beatings administered by the guards for the slightest infringement, real or imagined. The unfortunate victimwas clamped at the ankles with an iron rod, the thickness of a thumb and eight to fifteen inches long, and made to leap-frog round the prison compound with at least three prison guards (sometimes more) kicking, punching and striking him with rattan canes from behind. The iron rods would cut into the flesh, compounding the agony. The only relief came when he passed out. A heavy wooden block was then clamped onto his legs, and fellow prisoners would carry him back to the cell.

There were also those beyond pain. I thought of them as the living dead, wretched and pitiful souls who had lost the will to live completely.They had known, a long time ago, that the Burmese authorities would never release them. They were going to die in jail. They had seen their own deaths played out hundreds of times. Maybe in two years, maybe in five or twenty, the filth, disease and worst of all, the mental agony would get them. They were now mentally dead and had to be force-fed by others. Their eyes were vacant, beyond sorrow and suffering.

Insein held both the very young and the very old. Both had equally disturbing stories behind them.

The young were the children who been born in the jail, and had never seen the outside world. Some were still in the bellies of their pregnant mothers when whole familieshad been arrested and incarcerated. Now,they ranand played freely among the murderers, the lepers, the lunatics, the TB patients and the living zombiesaround them. What crime had these children committed, except to be born in the wrong place?

The old, perhaps just as innocent, were the Rohingyas.

The Burmese authorities had locked up these Muslims from Arakan State in the 1950s and forgotten about them. They were men whose crimes had disappeared in the mists of time. Or perhaps there had been no crimes in the first place, beyond their religion and the intolerance of the regime at that era.The oldest of them was 90 years of age, half blind and bent with age. He had been held for 28 years. A group of them stayed in the hospital compound, the younger ones already in their seventies but still able to walk around and move about during their daily prayers. It must have been their prayers and faith that kept them alive.

The Muslims of Insein Prison had an unofficial leader. His name was Aktar,a one-time millionaire businessman of Pakistani extraction, who had been jailed under the nebulous offence of  “sabotaging the socialist economy of Burma”.

Aktar had bribed the jail officials and was living in relative luxury in a special compound with about 30 followers – eight of them former Chinese Red Guards, whom he had personally converted to Islam, and who now acted as his bodyguards. He had good food brought to him from outside every day, as well as books and medicine.

Aktar soon heard that a new inmate from Malaysia had arrived in Insein, andI was summoned to meet him. He said that he knew the Malaysian ambassador had visited me and I would be free soon.He wanted me to take a personal message to the former Malaysian prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was the first Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and tell him about the suffering and massacre of the Burmese Muslims.

Aktar lent me Islamic books, tolerated my many questions about them, and allowed me into his inner circle – the only non-Muslim given such a privilege. Although sometimes short-tempered at first, he had warmed to me greatly by time I was finally deported from Burma in May 1978.

I was back in Malaysia. But my passport had been seized by the government and I was told that I was under investigation because of my jail sentence. The passport could only be returned after I was cleared.When? “It could be years  –  or never”, I was told. I had two jobs waiting for me in Bangkok –one with the Business Times newspaper and the other as a reporter for the US news agency UPI at the 1978 Asian Games.

My career was in grave peril. I tried to put it out of my mind. It was time to keep my word to Aktar, and to pass on the message he had given me. But I was apprehensive. Why would Tunku Abdul Rahman even bother to see me? After all, I was a nobody, and he was a big man. But I thought I had to at least try. I owed that much, at least, to the forgotten Rohingya souls in Insein and their compatriots outside, who were suffering too. And a promise is a promise.

I had no real idea how to reach Tunku, in any case. Eventually I decided the best way would be to write a letter to Perkim, the Muslim Welfare Association he had founded. I wrote to them in May 1978, detailing the plight of the Rohingyas as my reason for wanting to meet Tunku. To my surprise, the editor of the Islamic Herald replied, requesting my photo and permission to print my letter in their next issue. They also gave me Tunku’s contact number and told me to call his secretary and make an appointment.

It was the beginning of my very fortunate and happy friendship with the Tunku.

Bangkok, 27 Jul 1985: - Tunku, wearing hat on left, with the descendants of Kedahans in Nongchok, outskirt of Bangkok      Photo: Kim Gooi

Bangkok, 27 Jul 1985: – Tunku, wearing hat on left, with the descendants of Kedahans in Nongchok, outskirt of Bangkok Photo: Kim Gooi

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