Jailed Activist's Wife Tells Story

A woman who has endured the hardship of caring for several jailed relatives talks about life as the member of an activist family.

2008.12.13
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Nay Chi Aung Naing 305 Nay Chi and Aung Naing in an undated photo.
Aung Tha Nge

Nay Chi, a 31-year-old mother of three and wife of jailed activist Aung Naing, has struggled throughout her life to make ends meet as the member of a politically active family blacklisted by the military government. In 1992, when she was 15, her father was in Mandalay Prison, her mother held at Insein Prison in Rangoon, and her brother at Thayet Prison in central Burma. All were jailed because of their involvement with an outlawed student union.

Her father, Hla Shwe, has been arrested several times since 1962. He most recently served six years in jail because of his work on a book about Burma’s 1988 student movement. Her mother, Khin Mar Aye, was arrested in 1993 and served a three-year sentence for joining a protest against the junta’s national convention. Her brother, Set Aung Naing, escaped to the Thai border after being arrested three times between 1988 and 2004.

Despite these hardships, Nay Chi has managed to provide for herself and her children, even while offering her support to her family members. She owns a photocopy machine and runs a private business so she can care for her children and father, but knows the authorities could seize her photocopier at any moment if they believe she is using it to create anti-government leaflets.

Nay Chi’s husband, Aung Naing, 39, was a leader of the pro-democracy ‘88 Generation student movement. He was detained in September 2007 for his involvement in a protest march. In November, he was sentenced to 65-1/2 years in prison and recently transferred, along with other jailed dissidents, to a remote, rural Burmese prison.

Nay Chi told RFA about the harsh journey she undertook to visit her husband for the first time since his transfer to Kalay Prison in northwestern Sagaing division from Insein Prison in Rangoon—while her children, aged four to 12, stayed with her 71-year-old father.

While her husband was imprisoned at Insein, she visited him once a month. But after his transfer to Kalay, doing so has become much harder, she said. Getting to Mawlaik, where Kalay Prison is located, requires two full days of travel because no direct bus route links the two cities, and buses leave at irregular times. Road conditions make for a jarring ride:

“The road between Rangoon and Mandalay is good, but from Mandalay to Kalay, the roads are very rough. It is so bumpy that you cannot sleep on the bus…I could not take my three children because they had school, and besides, the journey is so rough that I didn’t think they could handle it. My youngest child is still too young to travel in this way.”

“When I got to the prison I was only allowed to see my husband for 40 minutes after traveling all that time. But when I met with him, things were better than I expected. The guards didn’t interfere with us and I could talk to him alone—just the two of us.”

“As far as I know, [prominent labor rights activist] Su Su Nway is also being held in the prison and there is also another prominent activist from one of Burma’s ethnic groups. There are quite a few political activists there.”

“The prisoners are given time to exercise and take walks. Political prisoners are kept together in a sort of prison wing—there are 10 rooms situated together to form a kind of unit.”

“He told me that he would not drink the tap water at the prison and that the guards had been providing him with bottled water. He said he dare not drink water from the prison lest he contract cholera…I have sent him some preventative medicine for malaria, but the medical officer at the dispensary has taken it all away. When he is feeling ill they said he can ask for the medicine from them.”

“Aung Naing told me to only visit him once every six months. He said that he did not want me to endure the hardship of traveling every month, even though we are allowed to see each other more often. He told me to send whatever I wanted, as far as books and medicine go, through the mail to the prison authorities, so that I would not have to travel to bring them. He said to come only when I can manage.”

Original reporting by Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Written and produced for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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