Linn Thant sounds like any other first time father talking about his daughter, but for Thant, the birth of his daughter represents the beginning of a new life.
A slight man, Thant’s dark hair is always parted to one side and carefully combed. Born in Meiktila, Burma on March 14, 1969, he was sentenced to die at the young age of 19.
His story is one of both hardship and joy. He credits luck for his survival of two decades in Burmese prisons. Linn Thant, also known as ‘Eddie’, Thu Htun, Aung Naing and Banyarr Aung spent much of his life in the notorious Insein Prison just outside the former capital of Ragoon, Burma.
Insein Prison is one of Myanmar’s most infamous prisons. It also has the distinction of imprisoning Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights activist and now the first female Foreign Minister of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi.
He describes his time in prison as one marked by brutality, and military guards routinely tortured him.
Thant is part of the ‘88 Generation’, the moniker given to those who took part in the uprisings in August 1988. It became known as the 8888 Movement, a watershed moment during Burma’s history when students, workers and intellectuals pushed for democratic reform.
While at Rangoon University, Thant became a member of the activist group, All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF). During the 1988 uprising, Thant participated in mass protests against the then dictator, General Nay Win.
The ruling party, the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, instigated a bloody crackdown in response to the uprising. Fleeing the capital, Thant headed to the Burmese-Thai border and went into hiding at a friend’s house.
He was captured and arrested in the first week of May, and was sentenced to die on the 25th May 1990.
After a brutal interrogation, he was imprisoned in Insein Prison. Inside, prisoners, including Thant, were subject to arbitrary punishments, torture and uninhabitable conditions. “Not even the dogs or pigs would eat the food put out for us,” says Thant.
“At first it was difficult to survive in a cell which had no light, no ventilation, I could see no moon or sun. It was always dark. I stayed in the cell for 23 hours and 45 minutes a day. I could leave only to shower”.
After almost four months in prison, Thant took part in one of Insein Prison’s largest prisoner protests during the 1990 election. The SLORC military regime announced the National League for Democracy’s victory in a landslide election. Despite this victory, they refused to hand over power to the NLD. The prisoners launched a hunger strike to condemn the regime which resulted in violent crackdowns by the prison guards. Many were injured, including Thant.
In the prison, reading and writing materials of any kind were strictly prohibited. Thant became so desperate to read that he began to smoke cigarettes rolled out of recycled newspapers.
“I was starved for reading – before I was arrested I never smoked. In the Death Row cell block, I smoked 25 Cheroots a day as the filters are made from newspapers.”
Members of Thant’s family were permitted to visit once a fortnight; the moments were bittersweet.
“I felt their grief, their sadness, but on the other hand – I knew I never could have survived without their visits.”
After days, months and years Thant found ways to survive.
The visits from Thant’s family became crucial to his survival – the food and medicines they gave him were traded for books, pens, pencils and a radio – smuggled through by prison workers.
Thant spoke to fellow political prisoners, surreptitiously wrote, read, meditated or listened to the radio. He even screamed – anything to occupy himself.
“At first, we were hopeless in our cell. Later the cell became my home, I talked politics, screamed, drew on the walls, meditated – meditation made me strong”.
Those who could not occupy themselves risked being driven to insanity by the unsanitary conditions, lack of food and ill-treatment.
“If I didn’t – I would be crazy or a fool. Some of my friends went mad because they couldn’t find ways to survive.”
In recent decades, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been under increasing international pressure to democratise; Western leaders crippled the nation through sanctions. In a bid to prove its commitment to human rights and democracy, waves of political prisoners have been released from prisons.
While the country is attempting to make the transition from one of the most closed societies in the world, many prisoners, like Thant, continue to be held in prisons throughout the country.
In September 2009, it was announced that Thant along with 7,114 prisoners would be released for humanitarian reasons. Upon his release, and still fearing for his safety, Thant fled to Thailand where he again became involved with activists pushing for Burmese activism and democracy.
Thant found work as a columnist for the Thai based Irrawaddy Exile Media. It was there where he met fellow writer, Eaint Thanzin. The two fell in love and in less than a year Thant and Thanzin married.
Thant and his wife struggled with residence requirements in Thailand but were eventually able to seek asylum in the Czech Republic as refugees.
The difficulties starting over were immense – basic language skills, discrimination, and housing:
“The first problem we had was finding a flat. I gave many calls to landlords but never received replies as I spoke English not Czech. Finally, I found out that some landlords don’t want to rent flats to foreigners.”
After trying and failing to complete his education, which had been stunted by two decades in prison, Thant initially struggled to find employment to support himself and his wife in the Czech Republic.
Eventually he was offered a job with Denik Referendum media, but Thant struggled to support himself and his wife on a weekly columnist’s income.
“I was so depressed in those early months, but then I received the best news of my life– my wife was pregnant.”
At 9:09AM on the 22 of January 2016, Thant’s daughter, Izabela was born.
“She is the very beginning of our new life here in the Czech Republic. She is everything.”
Thant found work with Prague schools teaching English to young students to supplement his income as a journalist in order to support his family. His former country is never far from his mind and forms the backbone of much of his work as a journalist.
“The current situation in Burma is very fragile, but positive. While Burma has been a colony of Britain for more than 124 years and has been independent since 1948 – it has had a mere 12 years of democracy”.
Thant believes the future of journalism is strong, and despite the challenges facing the industry, it remains crucial.
“Journalism is always necessary. It might be dangerous but it will always win.”
Words by Sarah Collard. Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_Collard_