Letter from Burma n.6. Prison Walls affect thorse on the outside, too
This is one of a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese translation of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the previous day in some areas.

Letter from Burma (No. 6)
by Aung San Suu Kyi

Mainichi Daily News
Sunday, December 31, 1995

"Young Birds Outside Cages"

There is a well-known book by Ludu U Hla, one of the foremost literary figures of modern Burma, about the heart-rending fate of young prisoners. The title of this book translates literally as Caged Young Birds or Young Birds Inside Cages. During the last seven years many young people have been put into the prisons of Burma for their part in the democracy movement. But it is not about them that I would like to write today, it is about the other young people, those who are left outside when one, or in a few cases both, of their parents are imprisoned for their political beliefs.

êThroughout the years of my house arrest my family was living in a freed society and I could rest assures that they were economically secure and safe from any kind of persecution. The vast majority of my colleagues who were imprisoned did not have the comfort of such an assurance. They knew well that their families were in an extremely vulnerable position, in constant danger of interrogations, house searches, general harassment and interference with their means of livelihood. For those prisoners with young children it was particularly difficult.

In Burma those who are held to endanger state security can be arrested under a section of the law that allows detention without trials for a maximum period of three years. And prisoners who have not been tried are not entitled to visits from their families. A number of political prisoners who were placed in jail for their part in the democracy movement were kept without trial for more than two years. For more than two years they did not see their families at all. Only after they were tried and sentenced were they allowed family visits: these visits, permitted once a fortnight, lasted for a mere 15 minutes at a time.

Two years is a long time in the life of a child. It is long enough to forget a parent who has vanished from sight. It is long enough for boys and girls to grow up into young adolescents. It is long enough to turn a carefree youngster into a troubled human being. Fifteen minutes once a fortnight is not enough to reverse the effects on a child of the sudden absence of one of the two people to whom it has habitually looked for protection and guidance. Nor is it enough to bridge the gap created by a long separation.

A political prisoner failed to recognize in the teen-ager who came to see him on the first family visit after more than two years in detention the young son he had left behind. It was a situation that was familiar to me. When I saw my younger son again for the first time after a separation of two years and seven months he had changed from a round faced not-quite-12-year-old into a rather stylish "cool' teen-ager. If I had met him in the street I would not have known him for my little son.

Political prisoners have to speak to their families through a double barrier of iron grating and wire netting so that no physical contact is possible. The children of one political prisoner would make small holes in the netting and push their fingers through to touch their father. When the holes got visibly large the jail authorities had them patched up with thin sheets of tin. The children would start all over again trying to bore a hole through to their father: it is not the kind of activity one would wish for any child.

I was not the only woman political detainee in Burma: there have been -- and their still remain -- a number of other women imprisoned for their political beliefs. Some of these women had young children who suddenly found themselves in the care of fathers worried sick for their wives and totally unused to running a household. Most of the children, except for those who were too young to understand what was going on, suffered from varying degrees of stress.

Some children who went to elitist schools found that their schoolmates avoided them and that even teachers treated them with a certain reserve: it did not do to demonstrate sympathy for the offspring of political prisoners and it was considered particularly shocking if the prisoner was a woman. Some children were never taken on visits to prison as it was thought the experience would be too traumatic for them so for years they were totally deprived of all contact with their mothers. Some children who needed to be reassured that their mothers still existed would be taken on a visit to the prison only to be deeply disturbed by the sight of their mothers looking wan and strange in their white jail garb.

When the parents are released from prison it is still not the end of the story. The children suffer from a gnawing anxiety that their fathers and mothers might once again be taken away and placed out of their reach behind several barriers of brick and iron. They have known what it is like to be young birds fluttering helplessly outside the cages that shut their parents away from them. They know that there will be security for their families as long as freedom of thought and freedom of political action are not guaranteed by the law of the land.