A Myanmar artist finds freedom behind bars—by portraying prisoners’ oppression

May 19th, 2023  •  Author:   Myanmar Now  •  11 minute read
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Sketching fellow inmates enabled political prisoner Ko Phoe to escape the grim reality of his situation and discover a new purpose in life

About a month after Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, 2021, murals started appearing on roads in the country’s largest city, Yangon. The huge images depicted Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the newly formed coup regime, holding a gun to his own head. They soon became rallying points for protesters who no doubt wished he would pull the trigger.

Few who gathered around these artworks knew who created them, however. Only the artist himself, who had joined the protests together with his 14-year-old son, was in on that secret, along with the friend who helped him get the materials he needed to make his own unique contribution to the outpouring of outrage that was sweeping the country.

“A friend of mine gave me money, and I did the rest. I drew murals in three places. It took me four or five hours to create each one,” recalled Ko Phoe—the artist in question—from the safety of a liberated area near Myanmar’s border with Thailand.

Ko Phoe draws a mural of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing in Yangon on March 7, 2021 (Getty Images)

Two years later, his work continues to draw attention to the country’s political crisis, which has since turned into a full-blown civil war.

In early January, the thin, white-bearded 51-year-old held an exhibition in a Thai border town that is home to many other fellow Myanmar exiles. On display were some 70 sketches on a far more modest scale than his Yangon murals. These were his pen drawings from his time inside Insein Prison.

Ironically, it wasn’t his street paintings that landed Ko Phoe in Myanmar’s most notorious detention centre. He was arrested on April 7, 2021, for doing something that many others were also doing at that time—banging pots and pans at night to protest the military takeover. The 100-household administrator in his Yangon neighbourhood informed on him, prompting police and soldiers to storm his home, beating him repeatedly with the butts of their rifles.

He laughed as he recalled the episode.

“When I heard they were coming for me, I thought for sure it was because of the murals. I thought I was a goner!” he said, describing the wave of relief he felt when he was told, after being tied up and thrown into the back of a military vehicle, that the reason for his arrest was his pot-banging.

But a search of his home turned up some incriminating evidence—a poster of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and some copies of a magazine published by the ousted ruling party—so his wife and son were also detained. His son was released the next day, but only after someone close to the family paid 500,000 kyat ($240) to the chief of the township police station.

Ko Phoe and his wife were held at the police station for two nights before being transferred to Insein Prison to face charges of sedition under under Section 505a of the Penal Code. They would not see each other again for another six months.

A living hell

Almost from the moment that he arrived in Insein, Ko Phoe started sketching. He soon learned that it gave him certain advantages.

The first drawing that he did was for a guard that he described as a nasty person—“a bully who swore at inmates all the time.” Despite this, the guard—who had somehow learned that Ko Phoe was an artist—was kind towards him because he wanted a portrait of his father.

After receiving an ID photo of the guard’s father and some drawing materials, Ko Phoe explained that he might not be able to do a good job, because he couldn’t see well without his glasses. The guard told him to do his best, but also asked him about his prescription.

“Four or five days later, after I drew the picture for him, he gave me a pair of glasses,” said Ko Phoe, adding: “I think he liked my drawing.”

But even having a guard on his side did little to make life in prison any less of a living hell. It was the hottest month of the year, and in a cramped “meditation dormitory”—a large space packed solid with protesters who had been rounded up all over the city—the heat was suffocating.

With hardly a gap between them, the prisoners spent their days and nights sitting or lying down side by side. The most coveted positions were along the walls, but these were only available to those prepared to pay for the privilege of not being surrounded on all sides by the bodies of their fellow inmates.

“The place was also crawling with bedbugs, and they were always biting us,” said Ko Phoe. “But we had to stay where we were. We sat and slept in the same place.”

The main entrance to Insein Prison, seen in June 2016 (Myanmar Now)

To relieve the constant stress, he decided to continue drawing. But to do this, he had to find a pen, which was considered contraband in the prison. He managed to do this through a criminal convict who was regarded as a prison “boss”. Together with two of his henchmen, this boss was one of the few non-political prisoners that Ko Phoe met during his time inside Insein.

“They had what I wanted, so I approached them,” recalled Ko Phoe. “I drew their portraits and they liked what they saw. That’s how I was able to get my hands on a pen.”

It also helped that the guard that he met when he first entered the prison had taken a liking to him. This made it possible for him to hold onto his precious possession despite the risk of being caught with it during inspections.

“He often came along when they did surprise checks. He shouted and swore at us, but said nothing when he saw my pen and other stuff,” Ko Phoe said.

For paper, he used anything he could find. Mostly, he drew on the paper boxes that the prisoners’ meals came in. There was a steady supply of these boxes, which he could easily get from other inmates eager for pictures of themselves that they could send to their families.

Inmate portraits

Over the next six months, he drew nearly 200 sketches. Most went to their subjects, who were grateful to have these mementos of their days in prison. But he also made copies for himself, which he thought he might publish as a book someday, along with the stories of those they portrayed.

“Everyone’s life was so interesting. I asked them to tell me about themselves while I was drawing them and then wrote a summary of their life on the portrait. There were all kinds of stories—some funny, some strange, some sad,” Ko Phoe said.

His skill made him popular with the other inmates. But this also made the “boss” jealous, so he had to be careful not to attract his attention or that of his two underlings.

Despite his efforts to avoid trouble, however, Ko Phoe couldn’t help but provoke the boss’s ire when he refused to contribute to a gift for a departing guard.

“He wanted us all to hand over money for the guy in charge of our dormitory, who was being transferred. I said, ‘Are you crazy? What did he ever do to deserve our respect?’ I told everyone to hold onto their money, and this got me reported. I was facing six charges, including incitement,” he said.

This was a serious matter. It could mean being beaten up and thrown into a solitary cell in shackles. But in the end, Ko Phoe got away with signing an affidavit.

The only time he stopped drawing was during a two-week period in July 2021, when Covid-19 was spreading fast in Myanmar’s prisons and he became one of its victims. But once he recovered, he soon resumed his pastime and continued widening his circle of acquaintances.

A few of these individuals stood out from the others. One was a street vendor from Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township who happened to get caught up in a sweep during a crackdown on protests there in the weeks after the coup.

“His name was Sai San. He was arrested in Hlaing Tharyar when the junta soldiers were going around seizing people indiscriminately. No one sent him any care packages, so he would buy and sell items from other prisoners to get by. He wouldn’t let me draw him at first, but he changed his mind when I offered him three packets of instant coffee,” recalled Ko Phoe.

He also met an illiterate “thug” who needed help writing a letter to his wife. He wanted her to send him a million kyat to bribe the guards so that he could freely extort money from other prisoners—a lucrative business, apparently. “I will send you 200,000 or 300,000 kyat a month,” the man promised his wife.

Then there was the man who was arrested because his unfaithful wife falsely accused him of incitement, and the junta informer who found himself behind bars after other informers turned on him for being too “sneaky.”

“He was also accused of incitement. In prison, he met some of the young guys that got locked up because of him. He pleaded with the prison authorities to put him in a different dormitory so he wouldn’t get beaten up.”

A reawakened passion

It wasn’t until six months into his sentence that Ko Phoe was able to see his own wife again, during a hearing at a special court inside the prison. It was also at this time that he was told by his lawyer that they would soon be released. (He later learned that this was thanks to an appeal from his father-in-law, a former military officer. No doubt some cash also changed hands, he added.)

This was welcome news, but it meant that he would have to  quickly come up with a way to smuggle his drawings out of the prison. Finally, he hit on the idea of rolling them up and fitting them into the spaces of a cardboard box used to hold his other belongings.

It was a tedious process, but it worked. He had to go through three checkpoints on the way out, and he passed through each one without arousing any suspicion that he had something to hide.

Much later, after escaping the country, he shared the secret of how he got his drawings out of the prison with curious foreigners and reporters. He wasn’t sure at the time if this was the right thing to do, but he decided that it was an important part of his story.

Anyway, he said, the prisons are full of money-hungry people. For the right price, you could get anything out of there, he laughed.

Despite all the tribulations that he and his family have suffered since the military takeover more than two years ago, Ko Phoe’s manner is remarkably easygoing. Indeed, he has even found a silver lining in his difficult circumstances.

He recalls that it was in 1988, at the height of the military’s savage crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising of that year, that he discovered his interest in painting. After fleeing to his mother’s hometown in Sagaing Region to escape the violence, he started doing watercolours as a way to pass the time.

By 1996, his skills were advanced enough that he was ready to open a small gallery in Yangon. He also found work as an illustrator for a number of magazines and news journals.

But in 2013, he stopped painting after his wife took a senior management position at a company. He decided to dedicate his time to caring for their son.

I want to show, through my paintings, how I lived in prison, and how the system oppresses us


It wasn’t until the coup in 2021 that his long-dormant passion was reawakened as a way to express his defiance of military rule, which has been a blight on the lives of Myanmar’s people for generations.

“I thought I had given up painting for good. But then I picked up my brushes again because of the coup. And now, after my time in prison, I want to continue,” he said.

Like many others in Myanmar, Ko Phoe has found a new purpose in life—defeating a hated regime. But unlike those fighting with guns, he is armed only with his talent for revealing the truth about life in his country.

“I want to show, through my paintings, how I lived in prison, and how the system oppresses us,” he said.

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