All Hail Burma’s Political Prisoners
By Elise PotakaNovember 19, 2012
At your service in Burma, President Obama: former political detainees are giving each other — and their customers — a real lift, via the Golden Harp Taxi Service.
THE GOLDEN HARP TAXI SERVICE was Talky’s idea. He was the first one to regain his freedom, the first to beg and borrow USD600 to cover the deposit on hiring a beaten-up old sedan, and the first to start hauling heat-weary passengers around Yangon’s hyper-colour streets.
It’s a cab company with a twist. While other drivers curse the hours wasted crawling through Yangon’s downtown traffic, sucking in exhaust fumes through open windows that look like they can’t actually be closed, Golden Harp drivers have a resilience honed in off-road conditions.
Talky, Bobo and Shell — the English names they use — have collectively clocked up about 30 years in Burma’s prisons. Hardened political activists born out of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, their lives until recently were defined by the struggle against the country’s oppressive military rulers.
But when a new semi-civilian government promising democratic reforms came to power last year, the three men found themselves in an unusual position. They were assured that it was no longer illegal to protest or march in the streets. And, along with hundreds of other prisoners of conscience, they were freed from jail.
The Golden Harp Taxi Service is a vivid illustration of Burma’s fragile new status — Talky, Bobo and Shell are operating a sort of moving halfway house for a population attempting the transition to freedom. This is the tentatively optimistic climate that will greet Barack Obama today, when he becomes the first US president to pay the country an official visit. But glaring hangovers from Burma’s repressive regime — including reports of still-operating gulags, and ethnic violence — will prevent Obama from issuing an unequivocal endorsement.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” Obama told reporters Sunday in Bangkok, Thailand, the first stop on a three-nation tour that also takes him to Cambodia Monday night. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.” Talky certainly did not foresee it. At 45, he is the oldest of the former inmates at Golden Harp. After 1988, he spent six years in prison in two stints, and the rest of his time engaged in the worthy, but financially unrewarding, task of bringing about political change in his country. “In jail, I didn't have any plans to do business,” says Talky, a wiry bundle of energy beneath a low-fitting baseball cap. “I was just interested in doing politics. In the past all I did was politics.”
Burma's Golden Harp Taxi Service
Talky was the first of the three men to be released from prison in 2010, when the reforms were nothing more than a whisper. His parents supported him as he continued to dabble in politics. At one point he tried to get a job, but he knew it was pointless; ‘political prisoner’ was not the kind of experience employers were looking for on a CV.
Then, when a friend asked him to help out by driving some overseas visitors around for a few days, it struck Talky that there were ways of making money that didn’t require approval from a nervous desk-jockey afraid of hiring a political dissident. In February this year, as the reforms turned from a whisper to a shout, he started driving people around for a living. “Golden Harp” is a nickname some foreigners bestowed on him after he’d given them miniature instruments as souvenirs.
It didn’t take much to convince his long-term friend and former prison mate, Shell, to join him in the taxi company. “I have a family, so I need to do some business to look after them,” Shell, 43, tells me as he grips the wheel of a road-weary station wagon. “And besides, you need money to do political activism.”
Shell spent 14 years in prison in three separate stints — an existence punctuated by periods spent in solitary confinement, the breakup of his first marriage and estrangement from his only son, and then a nerve-wracking five-year stretch away from his new fiancée, Lwin Mar Thet. When he was released in January, one of the first things he did was tie the knot.
“We fell in love in 2005, but he was arrested again in 2007 and so I had to wait for him to be released,” Lwin Mar Thet tells me as we drink bitter-sweet tea at a street-side stand. A savvy woman, with an open, friendly face, Lwin Mar Thet learned about the challenges faced by political prisoners at a young age. Her father was arrested after the 1988 protests — he was the one who first befriended Shell behind bars. But her father’s release only signified a new type of hardship. “After he got out, he became depressed. He’d lost both his parents and the family business,” she says, referring to the death of her grandparents and the forced closure of their textile shop by the authorities.
Lwin Mar Thet has also watched Shell struggle to deal with the fallout from his political activism. “The second time he was arrested, his baby [with his first wife] was just 18 days old,” she tells me, when Shell momentarily leaves the table. “Sometimes he gets depressed because his child doesn’t recognise him. But in the future he hopes he can contribute to his education.” Achieving this dream relies for the time being on the success of the Golden Harp Taxi Service.
IN A GROUND-FLOOR YANGON SHOP, plastered with posters of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, sits U Ohn Kyaing, a former prisoner of 16 years, and a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy (NLD). “They have nothing when they are released,” he says of former political prisoners. “The military regime not only destroyed the lives of political prisoners, but also the lives of our family members in many ways,” he adds, peering through thick glasses.
U Ohn Kyaing is now a member of parliament, something that seemed unimaginable even at this time last year. But he hasn’t forgotten his prison brothers. He oversees a social-aid service for former inmates, which, he explains, operates on the basis that, “NLD supporters donate to us, and we give money to detainees and those who’ve been released.”
It’s a service that’s perhaps needed now more than ever before. Since the start of 2011, more than 800 political prisoners have been released, according to the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The organisation estimates that more than 10,000 Burmese spent time inside during the military’s reign. Now some, like U Ohn Kyaing, have been thrust into the political limelight. But many others are just getting by quietly, making a living in any way they can.
Ironically, as their country moves in the direction that they had always hoped it would, former political prisoners are the ones who could find it hardest to reap the benefits. The new government continues to maintain restrictions on ex-inmates, limiting the jobs they can apply for and making it difficult for them to obtain passports. Many lack the skills needed to enter the modern marketplace, and there have been reports of universities refusing to enrol ex-prisoners. Physical and mental health problems are also common among them.
“To say that a person is a former political prisoner from Burma is nearly synonymous with saying that the individual is a torture survivor,” says Bo Kyi, joint-secretary of the AAPP. He believes the new government needs to offer some kind of official support to ex-prisoners. “Healing the wounds of the past is important if Burma is ever going to achieve national reconciliation. The first step is treating former political prisoners with the dignity they deserve.”
But Talky, Bobo and Shell are not holding their breath waiting for some kind of government-initiated support. In fact, they seem wary of the new political situation. In the relative cool of a downtown teahouse, Bobo — at 42, he’s the youngest of the trio — points out that there are still several hundred political prisoners languishing in the country’s jails. Since January, there have also been around 200 new politically motivated arrests, according to the AAPP. “We’re moving towards a democratic system, but in a democracy there are no political prisoners,” Bobo says. “If there are still political prisoners, then it’s not a real democracy.”
When asked if former inmates have become less political, either because the country is changing or because they have families to support, Bobo laughs and shakes his head. “Actually, some have become more political, because now there is the freedom to speak,” he says, with a betel nut smile.
When I ask about the Golden Harp clientele, the trio say they like picking up locals because there are no language difficulties. But they also want to woo more foreign customers, a sector of the market in which there’s less competition. Talky has just bought a new car on hire-purchase; it has air-con and a TV, additions that apparently increase his chances of driving around more of the heat-weakened and scenery-averse foreigners. But he wants to make his motives clear: “Only when the customers are happy will they use my service, and only when they use my service will I get money, and only when I get money will I be able to help another former prisoner.”
It turns out that the Golden Harp Taxi Service is much more than just a money-making venture for its drivers. In fact, whatever the trio can save doesn’t go into their own pockets.
“Each of us tries to put away at least USD20 per month. We use that money for a deposit on a taxi for another former prisoner,” Talky explains. Already, with just eight months of driving under their belts, they’ve managed to help one former prison-mate hire a car. “If people do well on the outside, they’ll be automatically included in the political reforms,” Talky continues. “I'm interested only in that... in seeing some positive changes in my friends’ lives.”
For Shell, the word ‘friends’ doesn’t quite sum it up. Taking out a packet of Red Ruby cigarettes, he leans forward on his teahouse stool and says: “We came from hell together, we’ll stand to the death together; we former prisoners are closer than family.”
And with that said, the conversation concludes. The Golden Harp drivers finish their tea, walk out into the sunlight, start their engines and edge their way back onto the city’s unruly roads, looking for the next fare.