New Internationalist

Interview with Myint Myint Wai

Issue 355

That reunion was short-lived. Wai and her husband were told to leave Burma. They now pay her childhood nanny to care for the twins in Burma until they get official permission to be reunited. Yet even half-a-world away the will to live and fight for democracy in her homeland that the twins have inspired in Wai continues to shine in her work and her words. When I speak to her in a suburban lounge room in Melbourne, Australia, she is painting: donating the proceeds of any sales to NGOs such as Prospect Burma and Burma Hope Foundation. As she talks about prison, about Burma and about democracy, the words stream from her and she gesticulates passionately, even as her husband - with tears running down his cheeks - silently leaves the room. But when she talks about the twins she is emphatic and determined: ‘They are my flesh and blood. They are my flesh and blood.’

She woke up strapped to a bed. There were sick and pregnant women lying everywhere around her: some sharing the 20 narrow beds that the ‘hospital’ provided, many others lying naked on the floor. This was a maternity ward with a difference: an extended cell within Insein prison, 10 kilometres north of Burma’s capital, Rangoon. No drugs, no washing facilities. no swaddling clothes for the babes before they joined their mothers on the concrete floor.

UN sanctions on Burma - imposed over a decade ago when the military dictatorship refused to stand aside after the democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi - have caused the basic cost of living (for food, medicine and transport) to soar, placing enormous pressure on the country’s population. Despite these hardships, the prison conditions that greeted Myint Myint Wai in Insein were unexpected. The 52-year-old businesswoman had not realised that writing a cheque out for the lawyers assisting Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would make her a political prisoner and then recast her as an activist seeking asylum. As the part-owner of restaurants she was unprepared for the taste of vegetables fertilized with the excrement from the prison latrines and the

dysentery that followed. And as one of the financiers of a hotel-in-construction, Wai was more used to sleeping in her Bangkok condominium than in a packed row of 40 women who - when turning in their sleep - had to do so in unison. At least here in the hospital - less than two weeks into her two-year sentence - Wai awoke in a bed: restrained after trying to kill herself by jumping from the first floor of the prison.

The women giving birth on the concrete floor below were not so lucky. A 16-year-old midwife - a malnourished and skin-scabbed prisoner who was born in prison and grew up as the servant of the prison guards - helped the mothers give birth in the clinic. If the babies got sick, they died: buried in a plastic bag at the back of the cell. ‘The situation affected me. When I saw what was going on around me, I knew I had to help.’

So she got out of bed and started helping. ‘A young mother was in labour for hours and when she finally gave birth to a skinny little baby boy, she said to me: “There’s another one in there.” Some 45 minutes later her second son was born. He was much bigger than the first. The mother was very sick, her breasts all shrivelled up. There was no way she could feed the babies. I got a warden to call my husband and ask him to send money for milk powder. Then I brought up the twins in jail. The twins gave me something to live for. I saved them and they saved me.’

You need to bribe all the time in Burma. Not just one person, but everybody. I had to rely on my husband sending food parcels for me and the twins. The women with no money simply had to learn how to survive or they would die in a lot of pain and with no dignity.’

Wai and her husband alternated prison sentences: when one got out, the other was put inside. While the convictions against them ranged from forgery and theft to trespassing, their real crime had been to fight for democracy. They had held no guns. They had given no speeches. Supplying funds to help the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi was enough to make them a military target.

After five months incarcerated in Insein’s political wing, Wai’s family was able to bribe her way out of prison and shortly afterwards the twins would join her.

That reunion was short-lived. Wai and her husband were told to leave Burma. They now pay her childhood nanny to care for the twins in Burma until they get official permission to be reunited. Yet even half-a-world away the will to live and fight for democracy in her homeland that the twins have inspired in Wai continues to shine in her work and her words. When I speak to her in a suburban lounge room in Melbourne, Australia, she is painting: donating the proceeds of any sales to NGOs such as Prospect Burma and Burma Hope Foundation. As she talks about prison, about Burma and about democracy, the words stream from her and she gesticulates passionately, even as her husband - with tears running down his cheeks - silently leaves the room. But when she talks about the twins she is emphatic and determined: ‘They are my flesh and blood. They are my flesh and blood.’

Myint Myint Wai talked to Becc Galdies

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