Learning to Cope in a ‘Trauma Society’

Saw Thet
(Daniel Gawthrop photo)


Meet Saw Thet Tun. As a student in 1988, he was involved in the pro-democracy movement. A few years later, the authorities caught up with him.

Now, look at his right eye. Looks normal, right? But it’s useless. He lost all its vision during the nineteen years he spent as a political prisoner of the dreaded SLORC/SPDC military regimes.

Saw Thet Tun didn’t explain exactly how he lost the eye when he spoke recently to a small gathering of clinical psychologists, counselors, NGO representatives and foreign embassy officials at the downtown Yangon branch of the YMCA. But then, he didn’t really need to: whether it was through some grim form of torture (widespread in Burmese prisons during the dictatorship years), or disease brought on by squalid conditions in his jail cell, the result was the same: “My life was crushed, and I was totally demoralized.”

Saw Thet is a member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which recently launched a programme to train peer counselors working with newly released political prisoners. (The programme is timely given President Thein Sein’s year-end amnesty, which saw the release of several political prisoners on December 30 but has been criticized for loopholes that allow the government to imprison activists on other pretenses.)

Many of those who are released from prison, especially the long-termers, are shell shocked and suffer post-traumatic stress when they get out, says Saw Thet. But they are too proud to think they need help.

“Those words, ‘counselor’ and ‘mental health,’ are words our society is unfamiliar with,” he says. “Most people think we don’t need counseling because we’re strong.”

I was invited to the event where the AAPP launched the new programme, and wrote a story about it for a local, non-state news agency in Myanmar.

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