A review of U Win Tin: “What’s That? A Human Hell.” (In Burmese)

U Win Tin (U = Mr. or Uncle, a sign of respect) a close associate and adviser of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as the chief strategist of the National League for Democracy, spent 19 years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, most of it in solitary confinement.

On his 80th birthday recently, the AAPPB released his prison memoir, “What’s That? A Human Hell,” immediately creating a buzz in the Burmese dissident and exile communities. Two Burmese women, one a dissident blogger, one perhaps a closet dissident, sent me electronic copies, saying they had read it straight through, even though they had “other things to do.” It had the same effect on me, even though I read Burmese slowly now and don’t like reading long pieces on line.

Win Tin said he spent “more than 7,000 days” in prison and does not know much about it. He was often punished for his continued activism in prison by being placed in solitary, or worse in “the center of hell, the dog cells” where army dogs barked at him “wone wone wone, at night and waung waung waung in the day time.” Instead, he used his prison time to try and live a life with friends, speaking up for common criminals when he needed to, creating a surrogate family, doing many good deeds, plumbing the depths of his own psyche and political philosophies.

What emerges is a crusty, cussed, stubborn old man, who still keeps wearing his blue prison garb but who has refused to let his principles ever be compromised. In the introduction, he lists his losses: his home, his adopted daughter forced into exile, his gums bare because he lost his teeth in prison beatings and “missing one of the organs I was born with” – a testicle due to an overdue operation for a strangulated hernia in a dirty prison hospital cell.

Win Tin is a genius at the shorthand political slogan or survival tactics for prison. We learn that the political demands, Suu, Hlut, Twe, Hpwe, for Suu – let Suu and all political prisoners go Hlut – for Hluttaw or parliament Twe for dialog Hpwe for freedom to organize, which I first heard of only in 2009 while working for the exile government, and which are now the sticking points forcing the NLD to vote that it will not participate in the sham elections this year, were really formulated by Win Tin and his prison colleagues as early as 1994. He relates how he told this to Bill Richardson, who saw him in prison.

Win Tin does not have much respect for Western analysts’ take on Burma. Of the 1994 Time magazine cover story, he says:

… if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Lt. Col. Khin Nyunt (then the most powerful man in Burma, deposed and arrested in 2004 in an internal purge) were to meet and dialog and work out a give and take situation (Oh my God!), Burma’s ah me boke big yarn tangle would become immediately clear and untangled.

Time wrote that thread by thread it would all be unraveled and come out straight shaw ka ne, phyaw ka ne, chaw ka ne. After reading that piece, I became even more dejected and heavy hearted. I did not see anything becoming clearer.

American media and society are quite problematical. They have in their heads some rigid beliefs, … some scattershot ideas like puffed rice confetti, flying all over the place.

They’re like the phrase from Saya Zawgyi’s poem –

ma thi wowa, htin wowa – vague, ignorant, muddled.

Look now, Time has done it again, depicting Khin Nyunt as the savior of Burma. What dialog? Is Khin Nyunt going to arrange it so democracy activists and authoritarians can’t stop talking to each other? Ha ha, ha ha! Please moderate your brilliant ideas, American experts! p. 159.

Win Tin uses the Burmese language in an amazing way. His sentences are full of internal rhymes, literary allusions, prison jargon, synonyms and spoonerisms; poetic, witty, rough, rude, scatological and truthful, all at the same time, with a brilliant use of metaphor.

In this human hell, this hellish whirlpool, we are still struggling, swimming upstream, downstream. p.148.

… barking and hacking at us.

Odd and weird, wodd and ierd.

He won’t be easy to translate, but someone qualified should. As Win Tin himself might say, so-called Burma experts seldom can read Burmese and time is showing their take on Burma is very off the mark, tangled as it is in their own tech-speak and “diplomatese.” Or “diplomatease.”