Isolation blues? Myanmar's ex-political prisoners share survival tips


YANGON — From meditation to memory games, former political prisoners in Myanmar are dishing out tips on surviving isolation in a pandemic as the country once severed from the world again closes its borders.

The Southeast Asian state spent nearly half a century under a paranoid, secretive junta that violently suppressed dissent, jailed its critics and locked the country off as it drove the economy into ruin.

Pro-democracy activist U Bo Kyi, 56, was one of thousands jailed, spending eight years behind bars in the 1990s.

His punishment included 12 months in solitary confinement in an 8 x 12 foot (2.5 x 3.5 metre) cell furnished with just a bowl for a toilet and a mat to sleep on.

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Last week he posted advice on Facebook about how to cope with isolation to his compatriots holed up at home, gripped by fears over the coronavirus in a country with a threadbare public health system.

“I wanted to make sure people don’t get too down,” Bo Kyi told AFP.

“Do something! This is the best medicine when you are [in] isolation,” he wrote in the post, signed off “In Solidarity”.

During his detention Bo Kyi devoted himself to learning English, helped by a friendly guard who each day smuggled in a page from a dictionary.

The prisoner would memorise every word, then eat the page to destroy the evidence.

Accepting his reality and avoiding negative news helped keep him sane, he said, adding he also used to meditate and walk 6,000 steps a day to keep healthy.

‘Frontline warriors’

Myanmar has reported just 21 cases of COVID-19, including one death so far, but experts say the low number tested for the virus means the real figure is likely many times higher.

There are fears the country’s health system will be easily overwhelmed as cases rise. Myanmar is thought to have fewer than 200 ventilators for a population of 55 million.

Borders and entry points are now firmly shut as the country hunkers down, back in isolation sooner than many imagined possible after the end of outright military rule in 2011.

“We’re heading back to that situation again, and it’s not a happy one,” said analyst Dr Khin Zaw Win, who also spent 11 years incarcerated.

State media has led cheerleading for a national spirit of self-reliance, championing those in self-imposed quarantine as “frontline prevention warriors”.

The upbeat jingle “Go Away Corona”, blasted from loudspeakers on trucks spraying disinfectant, urges people to wash their hands, eat healthily and stay inside.

“People are the key” is Myanmar’s motto of the moment, repeated in speeches by civilian leader and COVID-19 taskforce head State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

She remains a heroine for most within Myanmar in spite of her tarnished reputation abroad.

A video of Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrating hand-washing has clocked up likes online, while her supporters jumped to follow her new Facebook account, opened during the crisis to communicate better with a country addicted to the platform.

She is herself an authority on self-isolation, having languished under house arrest for a total of 15 years in the junta era.

After her release in 2010, she described how she would meditate, listen to the radio and read voraciously.

Old hat for some

“There is a very strong resilience embedded in Myanmar society,” explained Khin Zaw Win. He even questioned if the elderly might weather today’s isolation better than many youngsters.

“My generation is used to this,” he said.

Other ex-political prisoners contacted by AFP were similarly sanguine about today’s crisis.

They urged people to stay calm, support each other and devote time to neglected hobbies like gardening or gaming.

Bo Kyi said he navigated the psychological torment of jail by not dwelling on his release date, a lesson for everyone during a pandemic with no immediate end in sight.

“Instead, focus on things in your control.”

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