Norway Day 5: Reflection

Whilst it’s easy to get carried away with the beauty of a place it’s just as easy to forget that that can often only act as a cover to a more pressing and often desperate situation that lies beneath – just think of Burma for example. Lillehammer, like so many places in the world, is beautiful but it’s a very long way from Burma and also is a long way from being able to be readily and easily involved in one’s activist work. This is one of the main problems that so many former political prisoners face when re-locating to a foreign country and in particular to a small town. It’s not just the whole physical and mental aspect of re-locating and trying to settle and find new work and start a new life – that’s hard enough. But it’s the fact that when you are there in your new town thousands of miles away from Burma or the activist networks in Thailand and elsewhere and often now living in the middle of nowhere, then continuing your activist work seems at times depressingly impossible. Perhaps living with little or no money, possibly no job, no access to communications or ability to meet regularly with colleagues it’s as though a second sentence is being passed down for the crime of wanting to free your country – the years in Insein were clearly not enough. Now you must go and live in the hills far away where you can’t bother the SPDC any more. The distant former life as a student, lawyer, doctor or whatever held no rank in Thailand to where these former political prisoners fled – the only life available there was in hiding or in a camp but only then if the UNHCR would recognise you as a refugee and thats a battle in its own right. Stateless people like so many who have fled Burma over the years. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to live like this, to have been politically active in spite of such brutal repression and then being forced to leave your country and now finding yourself what must feel like a million miles from home and at times also feeling isolated from being able to do what your heart and head is craving to do… continue your work to free Burma and your colleagues you’ve been forced to leave behind inside. It’s no guarantee but it must surely be somewhat easier if you are based in a major city where there may be better chance of work, access to services, activist groups, community etc but to be re-located to a small town far from anywhere in whichever country and even further from your home is particularly hard. It’s not just here in Lillehammer, but everywhere else I have been so far its so often the same story, from the camps on the Thai-Burma border to the big city metropolises where the suffering often seems to continue for people who have to leave everything behind through no choice of their own. But there’s a very special bond that unites every former political prisoner wherever they are in the world, whatever they are doing. For even though not everyone can be at the forefront of banging the drum of change for Burma, not one second goes by when all of their hearts don’t beat in time with that drum. My admiration and respect knows no bounds in the company of these men and women.

Today was just a day of reflection in Lillehammer. We catch the train back to Oslo in the early evening for tomorrow its a final day at DVB before returning to the un-real world back home.

Norway Day 4: Lillehammer

Another day, another early start. Kyaw Soe Lin comes with us to Lillehammer, the next destination on this whistle stop tour of Norway. Famed for its ski-ing, Lillehammer is a couple of hours away by bus from Gjovik and is situated at the very northern end of the lake Mjosa. Known globally for the winter Olympics that were held here in 1994, Lillehammer is every bit the picturesque winter town. Even though its still dark, the scenery is stunning as you drive alongside the lake and fresh snow last night adds to the beauty of the place. You would have thought that by now I would have learned my lesson about leaving the travel arrangements to the Secretary General – we arrive too early and it’s like a ghost town! Everywhere is shut and we can’t check into the hotel yet so we have to wait in the bus station to keep warm! We are here in Lillehammer to meet with 3 former political prisoners – Cho Seint, Hla Hla Htwe and U Ne Win. After a brief respite in the bus station we finally drop off our bags and make calls to plan the day – first stop is to see Cho Seint and Hla Hla Htwe who each have an apartment in the same building on the other side of town and we plan to spend the day with them before meeting U Ne Win and his family later in the afternoon. Ma Hla Hla Htwe @ Bea Shote was arrested in 1989, while she was on her way to the Martyrs’ Graveyard, which is now closed to the public, to pay her respects. Soon after, she was imprisoned by a Military Tribunal for 3 years and accused of organizing people to participate in riots. She was arrested and tortured again for an explosion in 1996, the perpetrators of which were never caught. Cho Seint @ Kyaw San, a poet and journalist with the private cultural magazine Style-thit (New Style), was arrested in 1997 under Article 5 (j) of the 1950 emergency law for having written in support of the student demonstrations in articles carried by opposition publications. He was detained in Insein and Tharrawaddy prisons for 7 years. During his questioning, which took place during the beginning of 1997, Cho Seint was tortured. He was beaten on the head and is partially deaf as a result of this. This period of questioning, which lasted several weeks, weakened him physically and psychologically. He is the grandson of Thakin Kotaw Hmime, one of the fathers of independence with General Aung San. His family has been deprived of resources since 1962 by the military junta and he was receiving almost no visits or help from outside prison. A former fellow inmate said his combative attitude never flagged and he even took part in a hunger strike in 1998 to demand more water and for cell doors to be left open during the day. The prisoners obtained their demands. He resettled to Norway in 2005. In 2007 he wrote his book entitled “I Will Always Love Burma”.

We make our way to their apartment building on the side of the hill overlooking Lillehammer and Ma Hla Hla has prepared us a feast – Ohn Nyot Khaut Swe (coconut noodle soup) which helps us warm up against the minus 12 degrees it is outside. We chat for ages in Ma Hla Hla’s tiny apartment and it seems like old times for old friends with much laughter and happiness all round so I sneak out to find locations for their photos. Listening to their stories its so very poignant and perhaps more so than before, because here we are in this beautiful place yet hearing such horrendous details and at the same time I feel very aware of how lucky I am. Not because I haven’t faced the wrath of the SPDC and Insein jail but because I have so many things in life – I can leave here tomorrow on a train and then head back to England before planning where to go next. And yet here we are now, sitting in a tiny apartment a million miles from home where one can be excused for feeling a sense of isolation creeping in.

With the light fading fast we head outside and take the portraits and they are great. Without further delay we head down in to town – the Secretary General choosing a tray to slide down the hill – and make our way to see U Nay Win and his family. U Nay Win spent 10 years in jail – 8 years in Insein and 2 years in Myingyan in middle Burma. We have the most compelling evening with U Nay Win and his interview will be available here soon – it’s a must listen to speech. With another day done we bid farewell to Hla Hla and Cho Seint and also to Kyaw Soe Lin who heads back to Gjovik. Yet another incredible day but perhaps also the most meaningful one yet. We spent the day with the grandson of Thakin Kotaw Hmime. I think I’ll have to write more about the whole experience tomorrow as we finally have some time off.

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