Review: ‘What’s That? A Human Hell’

U Win Tin is a close associate and advisor of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and is also known as the chief strategist of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Over his lifetime, he spent 19 years in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, most of it in solitary confinement.

On his 80th birthday recently, the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners in Burma released Win Tin’s prison memoir, What’s That? A Human Hell. The publication immediately created a buzz in the Burmese dissident and exile communities. Even though I read Burmese slowly and don’t like reading long pieces online, I put aside everything else and read the electronic copy straight through.

Win Tin writes that he spent “more than 7,000 days” in prison, but does not know much about how this notorious institution was run or organized. The authorities often punished Win Tin for his continued activism in prison by throwing him 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 daytime.” He used his prison time by trying to live a life with friends, speaking up for common criminals when he needed to, creating a surrogate family, and plumbing the depths of his own psyche and political philosophies.

The person who emerges from his narrative is a crusty, cussed, stubborn old man, who still keeps wearing his blue prison garb even after his release but has refused to compromise on his principles. In the introduction to his prison memoir, he lists his losses: his home, his adopted daughter forced into exile, his teeth from prison beatings, and a testicle because of an 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. For instance, in the mid-1990s, he and his prison colleagues came up with the influential political demand Suu, Hlut, Twe, Hpwe, which form the bases of the NLD’s present demands. Suu stands for “let Suu and all political prisoners go,” Hlut for Hluttaw, or the Burmese parliament, Twe for dialog, and Hpwe for “the freedom to organize.” This slogan remains the key demand of the NLD as it refuses to participate in this year’s government-sponsored elections.

Win Tin doesn’t have much respect for Western analysts’ take on Burma. After reading a Time magazine cover story on Burma in 1994, he became “even more dejected and heavy hearted.” U.S. journalists “have in their heads some rigid beliefs,” he writes, “some scattershot ideas like puffed rice confetti, flying all over the place.”

Win Tin uses the Burmese language in amazing ways. His sentences are full of internal rhymes, literary allusions, prison jargon, synonyms and spoonerisms. The language is at once poetic, witty, rough, rude, scatological and truthful. “In this human hell, this hellish whirlpool, we are still struggling, swimming upstream, downstream,” he writes of his experience in prison.

He won’t be easy to translate. But once someone qualified brings the text out in English, Win Tin’s memoir will rank with the work of other major figures like Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn and South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung.

Burma watcher and Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Dr. Kyi May Kaung is a bilingual poet and writer who has worked in the Burmese pro-democracy movement for over a decade. She is on the Technical Advisory Network of the Burmese Democratic Government in Exile.