Flying a Flag of Truth
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, February 17, 2019


Flying a Flag of Truth



Poet and artist Saw Wai was released from prison in May after spending more than two years behind bars for publishing a poem in “The Love Journal” that contained the hidden words: “Power-hungry, insane Gen Than Shwe.” In addition to his creative work, he has been active in fund-raising efforts for people with HIV/AIDS and other community-based projects. In 2009, he received the Hellman/Hammett Prize from Human Rights Watch.

Question: You have been interviewed by a number of Rangoon journals. Do you think these  interviews will ever be published?

Answer: We’ll see. I might have spoken too harshly about the authorities. As a former political prisoner, my answers were frank. If I continued to answer so frankly, it would have made it more difficult for the interviews to be published, so I also spoke about some good points. The interviewers told me that they would try their best to get my answers in their magazines. It might be possible, they said, because they believe that before or after the 2010 election, some level of freedom might be permitted in the media.

Saw Wai

Q:  How are your writing, art and community work going now?

A:  Well, I wrote some poems and essays while I was in prison. I have to make some final revisions to an essay called “Modern Art and Modern Images.” Before I was put in jail, I had already written about 50 short stories and planned to publish the stories in one go. But I couldn’t finish that, because I was imprisoned.

For the community work, we have a group called “White Rainbow.” We need more members. I want to go everywhere to help our people. If there are no restrictions, I will continue this work.

Q: Was your essay part of the reason you were imprisoned?

A: It’s hard to say why they put me in jail. But while I was there, I had more time and continued to write. Earlier, I had started writing about installation and performance art in Burma.

Q: What is that about?

A: The essay is based on the way I see art and the world changing, and the way I see Burma. In the creative arts, there are ways to comment on political, environmental and economic issues. Some of these ideas can be presented in installation and performance pieces, while other ideas can only live in poems.

So the essay is based on these new approaches to art in Burma. When we talk about art based on political ideas, you can see that everywhere in the world. In the old days, poems were created when a king or president or prime minister committed bad deeds. I also love to create these kinds of poems.

Q: Were you able to read and write while you were in prison?

A: Yes, I got a chance to read and write. Normally, political prisoners like us are denied this right. But as soon as I was put in prison, I started demanding to be allowed to read and write. And I told the prison authorities that I wanted to open a library. I was allowed to do that, and I set up a library with about 1,000 books in Insein Prison hospital. When I was transferred to Yamethin Prison, I made the same demand. The prison authorities allowed me to set up a library with about 1,000 books there. We had more readers in Insein Prison than Yamethin Prison. So I had to persuade my fellow prisoners to read. After 18 months, more prisoners were reading books. In Yamethin Prison, there are about 400 political prisoners and about 120 are regular readers. That’s one of the things I did in prison.

Q: Were other political prisoners allowed to read and write like you?

A: Political prisoners around me were allowed to read and write. When I was in Insein Prison, we were allowed to read, but not everything. If we wanted to write, we had to ask for permission from prison authorities and then they gave us some paper and pens.

Q: In Burma, censorship limits creativity.

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