Ex-political prisoners share survival tips


  • Myanmar
  • Tuesday, 07 Apr 2020

Keep calm and soldier on: Bo Kyi meditated, walked 6,000 steps a day and learned English to keep sane throughout his eight years in a Myanmar prison. — AFP

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 South-East 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 Bo Kyi, 56, was one of thousands jailed, spending eight years behind bars in the 1990s.

His punishment included a year in solitary confinement in a 2.5m-by-3.5m cell furnished with a bowl for a toilet and a mat to sleep on.

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. Do something! This is the best medicine when you are (in) isolation,” Bo Kyi wrote.

During his detention he devoted himself to learning English, helped by a friendly guard who smuggled in a page from a dictionary each day. Byo Kyi would memorise every word before eating the page to destroy the evidence.

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

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

There are fears that the country’s health system will be easily overwhelmed as cases rise. Myanmar is thought to have less 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.State media has led cheerleading for a national spirit of self-reliance, championing those in self-imposed quarantine as “frontline prevention warriors”.

“People are the key” is Myanmar’s motto of the moment, repeated in speeches by civilian leader and Covid-19 taskforce head Aung San Suu Kyi – herself an authority on self-isolation, having spent 15 years under house arrest in the junta era.

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

Other ex-political prisoners were similarly sanguine about today’s crisis, urging people to stay calm, support each other and devote time to 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.” — AFP

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