Writer and journalist Tu Tu Tha spends her 50th birthday behind bars

Myanmar writer and journalist Tu Tu Tha is not known for hosting grand birthday celebrations. Most of her previous parties have been simple but memorable gatherings marked by singing and time shared with loved ones, laughing. 

This year she was deprived of such an occasion. On Saturday, she turned 50 after spending more than four months behind bars.

Tu Tu Tha is not a criminal. She is an author of several books, a trainer of journalists, and a former editor with nearly two decades of experience in a range of newsrooms. 

She was arrested at her home in Yangon’s Thanlyin Township on April 24 along with one of her two sons, 18-year-old Nyan Lu Thit; her younger brother, Ye Naung; and a friend of her son’s, under the pretext that they failed to report themselves as overnight guests to the military authorities. 

Family and friends hoped that they would be freed shortly after they were detained, but all four remain jailed. Tu Tu Tha was sent to the infamous Insein Prison after spending three nights at the military’s Shwepyithar interrogation centre. She was later charged with incitement under Section 505a of the penal code, a violation that carries a three-year prison sentence if convicted.

In the four months she has been in prison, she has not been allowed an in-person visit from any of her relatives. 

Tu Tu Tha’s trial initially commenced in a closed prison court but was suspended in late June, when all hearings were halted due to the Covid-19 outbreak both inside and outside the jail. 

She is one of thousands of people subjected to the junta’s arbitrary arrests that followed the February 1 military coup. The regime has detained nearly 6,000 people in prisons across the country, charging most of them with incitement and terrorism for participating in anti-coup activities.

Compelled to write

Tu Tu Tha initially trained as an engineer at the prestigious Government Technical Institute (GTI) in Yangon’s Insein Township. She attended the school as per the wish of her late father, well-known cartoonist A Naung whose works were featured in newspapers and magazines from the 1970s until his death in the early 1990s. 

Raised in a family that celebrated creativity and the arts, Tu Tu Tha found that she was not suited to a career in engineering, instead changing her pursuit to literature, a passion since her childhood. Still, her love of the more than 120-year-old GTI school and the years she spent there were reflected in her most recent novel, published in early 2020. The title of the book, Bandamar Lan Ka Alwan Chay Yar, is inspired by the tree-lined streets in front of the dorm where she once lived. 

“The inspiration [for that book] was always in my heart. But I lost my computer when I was writing the book and was already halfway finished with it. It took me two more years to rewrite it from the start,” Tu Tu Tha said in a media interview at her book launch in March last year. 

Book cover of Tu Tu Tha’s latest book “Bandamar Lan Ka Alwan Chay Yar”

Her commitment to writing works inspired by real life events was also apparent in her first novel, A Phay Kyaung, or Father’s School. Published in 2015, it tells the stories of four Burmese migrants to Thailand and explores the struggles surrounding migrant children’s access—or lack thereof—to education. 

The inspiration for that book came from her experience working in exile as an editor for The Irrawaddy news magazine in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she wrote under the pen name Aye Chan Myae. 

The book followed a film by the same name, for which Tu Tu Tha wrote the script. It was made in 2012 but released in 2016, directed by filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who is also currently detained in the same prison as Tu Tu Tha after being arrested on the day of the coup. The lead actor, Ye Deight, is also detained in Insein. He was charged with the same offence as Tu Tu Tha and was arrested in early April. 

“Father’s School” film poster

After five years in Thailand, Tu Tu Tha returned to Myanmar in 2013 with her colleagues when The Irrawaddy opened an office in Yangon.

Ye Ni, the editor of The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition described his former colleague Tu Tu Tha as a committed journalist and writer who should not be spending time in prison, and called for the immediate release of all political detainees including journalists, authors, poets and filmmakers.

In 2016, Tu Tu Tha founded the Thanlyin Post, dedicated to and operating from her home township. She ran the publication for around two years until she could no longer afford to continue. Tu Tu Tha then went on to work as a part-time trainer at the Myanmar Journalism Institute.

Lover of betel nut

Friends, former colleagues and relatives of Tu Tu Tha have said they are worried about her health amid reports of widespread Covid-19 infections within Insein Prison. In a letter to her family dated August 20, she wrote that she indeed had fallen sick for a few days but had since recovered, according to a relative who asked not to be named for security reasons.

She brought her betel nut container with her even during a trip to Norway. She would be really sad if she could not have it while still inside Myanmar

Imagining her in detention, friends and relatives commented on Tu Tu Tha’s years-long addiction to chewing betel nut, once a health concern but now a simple pleasure that her loved ones hope she can still access. 

“She brought her betel nut container with her even during a trip to Norway. She would be really sad if she could not have it while still inside Myanmar,” her friend of nearly two decades, Tin Zar, told Myanmar Now. 

Humour and satire

Friends say that Tu Tu Tha’s sense of humour and ability to create satire, two of her most celebrated qualities, are arguably best showcased in her 2015 collection of short stories—Phoot Din, a Burmese play on the English word “pudding.”

“She always sees things in an artistic and loving way. Even when she faces hardships, she transforms them into witty satirical pieces of poetry and writing,” longtime friend Tin Zar said. 

US-based Myanmar poet and author Aung Way described Tu Tu Tha as one of the finest contemporary writers on the Myanmar literary scene since the early 2000s. 

“She contributed a lot [to Myanmar] from exile with her writings,” Aung Way told Myanmar Now.

In addition to her writing, Tu Tu Tha’s relatives and friends also know her as a lover of music, painting and environmental conservation. 

“She is spontaneous and full of positivity. She loves people, especially children,” said another longtime friend and former colleague.

If she were not imprisoned, the friend said, Tu Tu Tha’s 50th birthday would have certainly been a “joyful occasion” with close friends from across the Myanmar arts scene, and would have featured songs by her favourite singer Htoo Eain Thin. 

Tu Tu Tha is seen inside a studio holding a guitar (Supplied) 

“She would be so happy and laughing out loud—her usual self,” the friend said, speculating that Tu Tu Tha may have even created and unveiled a piece of writing or a painting for the day. 

A former detainee at Insein Prison alongside Tu Tu Tha told Myanmar Now that the writer is being held in a shared group cell with around 60 female inmates. 

“She exercises there and encourages other people to do so, too. She keeps herself healthy and reads books at night,” the now released detainee said. 

Tu Tu Tha was sent and received several books by loved ones in the early days of her detention. But restrictions for inmates have recently tightened and her family reports that they are currently only allowed to send her one book each month. 

The military council has released thousands of detainees in recent months, including those who have been charged with incitement. Tu Tu Tha’s family and friends say they hope that she too will be among the released in the coming months. 

Another friend said that while his own hope for the imprisoned journalist on her 50th birthday would be that she would soon be reunited with her family for a proper party, he believes her own wish on the occasion would be different. 

“She would surely wish for only one thing—democracy,” he said.

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