Burma’s “Papillon”
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Thursday, November 26, 2020


Burma’s “Papillon”

By The Irrawaddy MAY, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.4

Pado Mahn Nyein recently spoke to the Irrawaddy about his daring escape from the penal colony on Coco Island, “the Rock” of Burma. Mahn Nyein’s involvement in the political affairs of his troubled country began in the early 1960’s with his participation in an underground movement struggling against the nascent military regime of General Ne Win. But it wasn’t until July 1967, with his arrest for participating in rice riots which, at the instigation of military authorities, turned into race riots between Burmese and Chinese, that he felt the full force of oppression. After being held briefly at a Military Intelligence camp, he was transferred to the infamous Ya Kyi Aing “interrogation center” near Rangoon, where he was tortured for three months. Then he was sent to Insein Prison and placed in solitary confinement before being put in a regular cell for the next year. Then, on February 12, 1969, the prison authorities sent him to Coco Island along with 232 other political prisoners, including the famous writer Ba Maw Tin Aung and the noted translator Mya Than Tint, as well as Lay Htee Ohn Maung (a legendary parachutist) and Ye Bew (“Comrade”) Raja of the Communist Party of Burma. Other members of the CPB were also in the group, as were members of the Pyi Thu Ye Baw (People’s Volunteer Force), Pa Ma Nya Ta, and students from the Ya Ka Tha (Rangoon University Students’ Union) and Ta Ka Tha (University Students’ Union). Even armed forces personnel were sent to the island to serve life sentences of hard labor on “development projects,” mainly growing and harvesting coconuts. Conditions on the island were so restrictive and harsh that protests broke out twice in the time Mahn Nyein was there. Not only were prisoners forced to do hard labor in the island’s coconut plantations; they could not bathe, sleep, or eat without supervision or interference from their jailers. But this did not prevent prisoners from communicating with each other, and for Mahn Nyein, the prison was soon to become a place of learning. In October 1969, Mahn Aung Kyi, secretary of the All Burma Karen Organization, was imprisoned on the island and soon became Mahn Nyein’s political mentor. The older man, a fellow Karen, encouraged him not to give up the struggle against the military regime. Soon the two had hatched a plan to escape from the island, an act that they regarded as political. By escaping they hoped to have a chance to tell others about conditions on the island, and just as importantly, they wanted to demonstrate to their fellow prisoners that their captors’ control over their lives was not absolute. But to achieve either of these goals would require secrecy and careful planning. Their plan was divided into three stages: making a boat and stocking it with provisions; crossing the sea; and joining a resistance group as soon as possible after reaching land. They anticipated a number of difficulties at each stage. First of all, there was the risk of getting caught. Building a boat and storing food and medicine would not be easy to do without attracting attention. Then, once they were off the island, they had to worry about storms and schools of fish large enough to capsize their boat. Being caught by the Burmese Navy was another risk. Finally, it would be no easy task to make contact with an underground political organization once they came ashore: the chance of being turned in to the authorities was great, as they did not know whom they could trust. With all of these daunting obstacles ahead of them, they had to plan and act carefully. They went to work on the boat on Che Di Island, just off the extreme southern end of Coco Island, using wood removed from an old abandoned house. They hid the wood in a field full of bushes, where they were able to work without being seen. The boat was fifteen feet long, with a pointed bow, a rudder, oars and three sails. For balance, they also strapped bamboo to the sides. They even managed to make a compass. For food, they dried turtle meat, grew sweet potatoes and cucumbers in a secret garden, and took whatever they could get from the prison. They also collected as much medicine as possible from the prison infirmary. Finally, after eight months of careful preparation, they were ready to sail on September 16, 1970. They cast off at about 10 p.m. that evening, along with another companion, U Aung Ngwe, a schoolteacher and former CPB member. The following day, the three men found themselves in the middle of a fierce storm. Waves up to ten feet high towered over them, while winds of about 45 miles per hour sent their boat flying at high speed. They worried about damage to the mast, but the wind was so strong they couldn’t untie the sails. They were also afraid of losing control or capsizing, but after an hour, they emerged from the storm unscathed. After this, they felt more confident they would survive their journey.

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