I Am Still Grateful: Shan Dissident Recalls Prison

Shan State Army (South) spokeswoman Nang Khur Hsen. Photo: RFA

Nang Khur Hsen was born June 19, 1955, the youngest daughter of ethnic Shan parents and the daughter of a farmer and merchant. Nang Khur Hsen was a leader in the U Thant student uprising of 1974 for which she was handed a six-year prison sentence. She was released after three years and became a social worker. At the time of her arrest, Nang Khur Hsen was 18 and a third-year economics student. Now a spokeswoman for the Shan State Restoration Council on the Thai-Burma border, Nang Khur Hsen spoke to Nang Kham Htwe of RFA's Burmese service in October 2006:

Being in prison is such that if you value material things, you will not be able to stand it. For example, we don’t get to eat well, the living conditions are poor, and the clothing wasn’t good. If you cherish material things, there isn’t anything inside there.

But if you value intangible things, there are things such as people’s minds, how people inside prison help each other, and how they are crooked, and how they schemed against each other. These things can teach you a lesson.

...When they were a hammer, they hit an anvil, and so when I became an anvil, I was hammered. You need to be able to withstand the blows and not be pulverized when they hammer you.

Rats in cell

There were things I didn’t learn at university, but I learned them in prison… I was a lump of meat, minced into tiny pieces, and then rolled back tightly into a hard ball—strong again to face life. These are the benefits I gained from prison.

I tend to view everything with positive eyes. So I gained good things from the bad things. But if I have to look back at the bad things, no one would want to be in a prison.

Because of the policy, they thought they were right and when they were a hammer, they hit an anvil, and so when I became an anvil, I was hammered. You need to be able to withstand the blows and not be pulverized when they hammer you.

I don’t regret it what I did. I did it because I thought it was right. And also, what I did was not for myself. It was for the people—we did it for the glory of the country.

…We were university students, and we were not in high positions like the officials who were ruling the country. We didn’t have ideas like they did. But we acted for the glory and dignity of the country, sacrificing our own interests. We did it for the good of the people. That’s why I don’t regret it at all.

[My six months in solitary confinement] was quite difficult. It was extremely hard for me for the first 10 to 15 days. Inside the prison, rats would come out from the ground. They were as big as newborn pigs. They had grown fat from eating brown rice. The cement floor was broken, and there were holes here and there.

We had to sleep on a mat with a thin blanket and were locked up in a room. There was a 40-watt light bulb way up high—about 20 feet—for two rooms. I wasn’t even able to see my hand well.

…There was also a big earthen chamber pot in the room. It was covered with a wooden lid. In the morning, at 7:00 a.m., they came to open the room. I would wash my face, empty the chamber pot, wash the pot, and bring it back.

Sympathizer in prison

As if they were mute, the prison staff members on duty did not speak a word to us. We cannot blame them. According to the order from above, if they had talked to us, they would also have been in prison along with us, so they didn’t talk to us at all…

In the end, I meditated. I meditated and controlled my mind. I kept controlling my mind, and in the end, I got used to it. Because of those experiences, I still do not feel comfortable being in a crowded place and mingling with other people. I find that when I write, my mind becomes calmer.

I will tell you one good thing out of the bad things. In the small room where I was locked up in the prison, there was a peephole the size of an eye through which someone outside could look. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, once at night, or whenever they became suspicious, they would come and look at us from that peephole.

One day, a lump of jaggery [candy] fell from that hole unexpectedly. I don’t know who threw it in. After each meal, I would keep that lump of jaggery in my mouth until I tasted sweetness. Then I would take it out. I ate that lump of jaggery, a little bigger than an inch, for a month.

Then about a month later, three or four hot chili peppers were wrapped in paper and dropped from that hole. I ate those four chili peppers for 15 days. I accepted with gratitude the things given by someone who empathized with me.

I am still grateful today for that lump of jaggery and four chili peppers. I don’t know who gave them to me. That person risked his life to come and drop those things in a dangerous situation. I still feel grateful and have not forgotten it.

Original reporting by Nang Kham Htwe. Translated by Than Than Win. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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