October 24 marks 13 years of house arrest for Burma’s democratic leader elect Aung San Suu Kyi. There are about 2,000 political prisoners currently being held in Burma by the military junta. Among them, for a time, was Ashin Panna Siri, a Buddhist monk who played a leading role in last year’s saffron revolution. Determined not to suffer further interrogation and torture in custody, he made a daring escape from prison, and from Burma
I was one of the leaders during the saffron revolution, the monks’ uprising, and the Burmese military regime were looking for me. The authorities raided monasteries in Rangoon and the top leaders of the monks were dragged away and arrested. Those who escaped were declared wanted men. I escaped and moved from one place to another.
First I went to Mandalay and then to Sagaing and finally to Monywa, where I was arrested. I was found at an internet cafe by secret service agents. I think the cafe owner had called them. After that I was taken to Monywa No.1 Police Station.
At the police station I was badly tortured. The police used every means they had. I had to stay at this interrogation centre for six days, interrogated day and night and deprived of sleep. I was forced to squat and stand on one foot while answering questions. When I couldn’t answer, or if my answer was unsatisfactory, I was punched in the head, face and ribs. My interrogators stamped on my toes with their boots and every question was accompanied by a kick to my chest. I suffered so much that I tried to commit suicide.
During my detention high-level military officials – I believe they were the divisional commander and deputy commander – visited quite often and closely supervised my questioning. They would talk to my interrogators in front of me, asking questions like: “What is the situation now? What information did we get?” and telling them to make me talk by any means.
The military security agent was the worst. He kicked my face with his boots and also kicked my chest. He said that he didn’t care if he was dismissed for using violent methods. He also put his pistol on the table and threatened me.
After six days I was taken to a forced labour camp. Then one night, at midnight, as I was again undergoing violent interrogation, it became clear to me that my fate was to be sentenced to further imprisonment. So I made up my mind that I would escape.
No one helped me. I secretly planned my escape, all by myself. It was my dream, my hope. It proved to me that my mind was free even though I was sitting in jail. It showed me that while they can arrest the body they can’t arrest the mind.
The following night I scaled two of the barbed-wire fences that surrounded the camp – one of them was 3m high and the other 4.5m. I climbed over them both. My hands and arms were torn and lacerated by the barbed wire. It was very painful but I didn’t care about that. I travelled alone in the jungle, hoping that I was going in the right direction – I was unsure of where the roads led.
I’m a bit afraid of wild animals, but tried not to think about them as I trekked up mountains and down the deep valleys without sleep. I came across a herd of buffalo and donkeys on my way. When they saw me they ran here and there, but they didn’t harm me at all. Sometimes big thorny bushes would get in my way and I would have to roll my body over them or crawl underneath them.
While I was running I recited Buddhist scriptures – the Pritta Suttas and the Patthana. I also contemplated the Nine Supreme Qualities of Buddha and the Metta Bhavana, which is the cultivation of loving kindness. Later, I could not recite them anymore; I was too thirsty, hungry and exhausted. So I only contemplated them in my mind.
During the trip, I tried to avoid people, afraid of being arrested again and punished further. The only thing I had with me was a gas lighter that I could use in the darkness. I ate wild berries and drank what water I could find. Then, after two days and two nights in the jungle I reached the Indian border.
I have no words to express how happy I am to be once again at liberty. This freedom is not only mine but also that of all the other people of Burma. I want to contact my friends and other Burmese monks around the world – as well as those who are still in Burma. I will continue to struggle for freedom and justice. I will give the light to the poor.
• Ashin Panna Siri was interviewed by Armstrong Augusto Vaz. A protest in response to the suppression of the Burmese monks is being staged in central London on Friday October 24, between 10am and 5pm. For more information call (0044) 207 443 9700 or email the art collective Bondage for Freedom at email@example.com.