Between Two Fires
When I first met Saw Htee Byan in Rangoon Central Jail in 1956 he was just twenty-four years old. He was a strapping young man with a stocky build and a healthy complexion. His mother was Karen and like most Karens he possessed a fine melodious voice. At my request he sang several Karen songs while accompanying himself on the guitar.
After we had grown better acquainted he readily recounted to me the story of his life.
My grandfather was a village headman in Pyapon during the administration of the Hteebyan District Commissioner. Because I was born at this time I was named Saw Htee Pyan. My birthplace is Amar village which is about thirty miles away from Bogale Town, Pyapon District. My father’s name is Ko Hla Shein and my mother’s is Ma Ngwe Khin or Naw Yon Mu. My father is pure Burmese hailing from Upper Burma and my mother the daughter of a Karen Headman. My grandfather, U Po Bylu was well known in the area, being a headman who had been awarded a double barreled shotgun by the government for meritorious service. My father was a carpenter. He had come to repair the paddy barges belonging to my grandfather and had fallen in love with my mother. Grandfather approved of the match, and had them married with a proper ceremony.
I was the first child to be born of their union. My grandfather doted on me and named me Htee Pyan (“The umbrella returning” Commissioner, because practically all accused who appeared before him were sent to prison and only their umbrellas returned home).
Amar was a Karen-Burmese village of about two hundred houses. While it boasted two Buddhist monasteries, it had no secular school. When I was five years old my grandfather died and we moved to a village about fifty miles away called Kanyin-tabin. This village also had about two hundred houses and there were both Karen and Burmese families in the village. However, the Burmese far out-numbered the Karens, of whom there were only twenty households. My father set up shop as a carpenter, while my mother opened a small school to teach Karen and Burmese.
About the end of the Japanese occupation I was ten years old, and had acquired three sisters. The person charged with the anti-Japanese Resistance in our area was a man named Bo Kyaing. This officer attacked the Japanese prematurely and in reprisal they came and razed our village to the ground. We had to flee to another village thirty miles away called Myit-nga-hseik. Father set up a general provision store there, in partnership with five friends from Ohn-bin-su village near Pyapon. My mother no longer taught school and I had to attend the Karen school in the village.
Grandfather had been a pastor in the Karen Christian Church. Before he died he had managed to convert my father from Buddhism to Christianity and my father now became a pastor as well. He could deliver very fine sermons both in Burmese and Karen.
At about this time the political situation took a turn for the worse, and one day hearing gunshots, I ran home to find that rebels from the Karen National Defense Organisation had attacked our home. Father had managed to escape unscathed, but of his five Burmese friends, two were found dead inside the house while the remaining three were found outside also dead from gunshot wounds. Mother was inside the house weeping. The rebels pointed their rifles at the me and shouted, “How about you? Do you want to be a Burman or a Karen?” Only by replying that I wanted to be a Karen was my life spared. They then carried off all our property, leaving only our clothes, some salt, and a basket full of rice.
The K.N.D.O rebels then left after ordering the village militia to deliver the corpses to Pyapon. The militia had been organised by the government, but its members were Karen. They took the bodies to the Pyapon police station, where they reported that my father Ko Hla Shein had murdered his partners and absconded.
Meanwhile my father was hiding out in the jungle without food and water, not daring to approach the vicinity of human habitation because the story the K.N.D.O rebels had spread and had turned every man’s hand against him.
I travelled to Pyapon to see my father’s younger brother who was a Lieutenant in the Army and related the true story to him. My uncle came with me to view the corpses to make sure that father was not included in their number. Then he accompanied me back to the village, together with a squad of soldiers to search for him.
Some young cowherds informed us that a man had been seen sleeping at nights in the cemetery of nearby Char-gyin village, and making our way there quietly, we saw that it was my father. “Father! Father!” I called out to him, but he took fright and ran away. However the others immediately gave chase and finally succeeded in capturing him. Since he was wanted by the authorities my uncle had to surrender his own brother into custody.
After a month’s investigation the government published its findings declaring that my father was innocent of the crime, and that the K.N.D.O’s and the militiamen were the murderers. The relatives of the victims wanted action to be taken against the real culprits, but they could not be found. Ever since the news broke that my father was innocent, the militiamen had refused to obey all summonses issued for their appearance at the Pyapon police station. Father was released from custody, but he no longer dared to return to the village. Mother also was afraid to join him. Their separation dates from this time. I remained with my mother. I hear that father is living in Rangoon but I know neither his address nor his present occupation.
Although father had been a pastor he had put me in the Buddhist monastery school. He said that he wished to see his son brought up as a Buddhist. Accordingly, during the Japanese occupation I was novitiated together with seven other boys in a grand ceremony.
When I returned to the village with mother the Karen insurgents asked me: “Are you going to stay here, or do you wish to move to a Burmese village?” I had to reply: “I would like to stay in this village please.”
To make both ends meet, my mother had to sell the five cows that we had left, and with the proceeds buy a garden plot which we worked for the next two years. At the end of this period the Communists attacked Myit-nga-hseik village and so we returned to our original home in Amar village where we took up catching shrimps for a living.
Having grown up in Burmese villages I could not speak Karen when I was young. On going to live with my mother and her relatives my cousins found out that I could not speak Karen and ostracized me as a Burman. Occasionally I would be punched and kicked by the older boys. When my mother complained to her brother about this he summoned all of us and explained to the other children that I was the son of their aunt and a Karen also and that I did not know their language because I had been brought up in a Burmese village. He urged them to help me learn Karen instead of ill-treating me because I could not speak the language. He then turned to me and said that from that day on I was not to speak a single word of Burmese and that every time I did so I would be caned, and also fined one anna. For a long time I found great difficulty in communicating with the people around me. My uncle would talk to me in Karen asking me to fetch something and I would have to rush to my mother and ask her in a whisper what it was that he wanted. Then I would run to him and say in Karen: “Here it is, uncle.” His face would be wreathed in smiles and he would rattle off some long sentences, none of which I understood.
Finally my mother had a brilliant idea and had me enrolled in the Karen village school. The schoolmaster was a very sympathetic and kindly soul, and took my education in hand. I worked very hard under his tutelage, with the result that now I can speak and read Karen more correctly than any of my cousins.
When I reached manhood I was enlisted as a member of the local security force set up by the Karens to maintain law and order in our area. I was appointed leader of a platoon. One day a member of my unit got drunk and held up a Chinese merchant from Bogalesetsu. On my next trip to this town to deliver dried shrimps I was stopped by armed police and searched. They also proceeded to my hut where they uncovered a revolver and three cartridges. I was arrested straightaway. At first they charged me with the unsolved murder of a man named U Than Maung, but I could prove my innocence on that charge and so it was dropped. However the Chinese merchant came forward to accuse me of robbery and the magistrate sentenced me to two years imprisonment.
I have been working as a carpenter in the prison. When I have served my sentence I intend to go back to shrimping, at which I can earn up to fifteen kyats a day.
Being a Karen-Burmese I often encounter armed partisans of both sides. The Karens want to kill the Burmese and the Burmese feel that the only solution is to exterminate the Karens. It saddens me greatly to hear such talk. Having witnessed how my father and his friends had to suffer at the hands of Karens holding narrow sectarian views I find it difficult to forgive the Karens. On the other hand I have seen how cruel the Burmese can be and that makes me embittered at them. When Karens suffer I feel resentful and when Burmans suffer I feel resentful also. Sometimes I wonder whether racial strife and civil war will ever be ended.
Ludu U Hla
The Caged Ones
Translated from Burmese by Sein Tu
© Orchid Press, Bangkok, 1998
The extract above is reproduced with the kind permission of Orchid Press.
It may not be reproduced, copied or used anywhere else without the written permission of the publisher.
Ludu U Hla (1910 – 1982) was born in Nyaunglebin in lower Burma. In 1933, he began publishing a magazine named Kyipwa yay (“Progress for Youth”), which continued until the beginning of the second World War. In 1939 he married Daw Amar.
During the war, Ludu U Hla translated into Burmese and published Ashihae Hino’s “War and Soldier”, the first book ever published during the Fascist occupation.
After the war, he began publishing the fortnightly journal Ludu, which means “The People” and from which his pen name Ludu U Hla originates.
An avid collector and publisher of folktales, Ludu U Hla collected around 2,000 folktales of the peoples of Burma and published around 1,500 folktales in a total of 43 books. In 1963, he was awarded the prestigious Burmese “Sarpay Beikman Literary Award” for his collection of Arakanese folktales.
Alongside this vast undertaking, he wrote 54 books, nine of which were biographies of prisoners he met whilst jailed for political reasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Before he passed away, he also left more than 500 unpublished folktales and seven unfinished manuscripts to his wife.
Haung-chaine-hte-ga-nghet-nge-myar (“The Caged Ones”), from which “Between Two Fires” comes, was originally published in Burmese and won the 1958 UNESCO Award. In the book, Ludu U Hla recounts with great compassion the life stories of sixteen young prisoners he met whilst in Rangoon Central Jail. Told in their own words, these accounts outline and explain the social pressures and reasons why these unfortunate young people had been driven to a life outside the law.
“Because I have written a lot about the prisoners, I do not want the reader to assume that I am wholly on the side of the criminals. But what I wish to make clear is that though they may commit atrocious crimes, they are not animals. I strongly believe that they should have a chance to be re-accepted among their fellow citizens should they repent.”
Orchid Press was founded in 1981, originally as White Orchid Press, by Hallvard K. Kuløy, a former United Nations executive who lived and worked for many years in Asia.
A specialized publishing house devoted to books related to Asia, Orchid Press publishes and provides readers with affordable high-quality editions of important works on the art, culture and religions of Asia.
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Between Holidays and Hell – Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, May, 2003
The Karen: Prospects for a Durable Peace
– The Karen National Union, Burma Debate Vol. III, No. 6, 1996
A Window to the Past – Stuart Alan Becker, Myanmar Times, January, 2015
Ludu and I – Bo Bo Lansin, The Dissident Blog, March, 2014
Ludu Daw Amar: A Burmese Literary Figure of Conviction and Courage – Myint Zan
Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power – Min Zin, The Irrawaddy, October, 2002
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