Animal Farm
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, November 15, 2018


Animal Farm



I had only been in Rangoon one week when it became clear that most people I met thought I was either crazy or acting a part in a “Mission Impossible” sequel.

I was in Burma’s former capital to meet as many of the country’s 2,100 political prisoners as I could. Many of them were locked up in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, among them the world’s most famous political prisoner—Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Elephants reach out to their human friends and fellow prisoners in Burma. (Photo: Pat Brown/The Irrawaddy)
“Are you serious?” was the most common response. Eyes shifted suspiciously and voices lowered to whispers. Perhaps they thought I was another John William Yettaw on a spiritual mission to free Burma’s incarcerated heroine.

I tried to look sincere, but it was difficult not to confirm their suspicions.

The only living things—if you exclude the guards—that have access to Insein Prison, I was told, were lizards, rats, birds and pathogens, such as the tuberculosis virus that was currently doing a round of the inmates.

With typical black humor, many Burmese I spoke with said I should just walk through the roadblock, knock on the door and ask for a tour of the facilities.

One man in a tea shop suggested an easier way was to interview someone who was “just about to” become a prisoner. That, I quickly gathered, could include anyone. 

I began to daydream. If indeed only animals had access to the prison, perhaps I would be better off going to the city zoo and interviewing some of the creatures in captivity there. Perhaps they could relate to me what life was like behind bars.

Of course, I am not Dr Doolittle and cannot speak to animals, but I decided to interpret the animals’ eye movements, every nervous flick of the tail and shake of the head for answers.

Below are some excerpts from my interviews with inmates at Rangoon zoo.

A nervous elephant, the only tusker in the zoo willing to talk to me, shivered as he remembered an incident on September 27, 2007:

At first we thought it was the crackle of lightning, but it was not. It was gunshots. We all panicked. Many of us had been shot at before. It was only some time later that we realized the human beings were shooting at each other, not at us.

On that day, after a week of street demonstrations calling for democracy, Burmese troops opened fire on unarmed protestors killing at least nine people and injuring dozens.

What can we say when humans are treated worse than animals. People are being put away in cages all over the country. Than Shwe is surely the world’s cruelest zookeeper,” said the elephant, swaying constantly from side to side, straining against the chains that bound him.

It’s not often you hear animals sympathizing with human beings. But then again, Burma is no ordinary country. It is the world’s largest prison, guarded for decades by a handful of military generals.

I can’t bear it any more,” said an Asian black bear. “Every night we hear the cries of prisoners from Insein. They are obviously being tortured. I can’t sleep through it!

And what is the reason for inflicting torture and suffering on the people of Burma? To keep them quiet while the country is looted of its wealth, of course.

In fact, Rangoon zoo itself has been in turmoil this last year over the abduction of several of its prized animals. The missing mammals and reptiles turned up in a new zoo in Naypyidaw, the new capital. It was a very hush-hush operation. The hippos were warned not to open their mouths and the bats were told to turn a blind eye to what was happening. The displaced animals in Naypyidaw report that the zoo there is even worse than Rangoon.

It’s no laughing matter,” said a lion. “Except for the hyenas, of course.

One white tiger and several pelicans died of suffocation inside the trucks. And the giraffes all got whiplash,” said a primate, who often acts as a liaison with the security guards because he speaks their language.

The elephants were in a rage at being given life sentences in the remote zoo, built in an arid climate with little water. The cockatoos and parakeets screeched insults at their captors, but to no avail. 

It was dusk and visiting time at the zoo was nearly over. As I made my way out, a gorilla waved me over to her cell.

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