Tag Archives: Burma

Forced Guest stay called ‘Protective Custody’, by Gurbux Singh, W6BUX

This is a follow-up to my article about the demise of Amateur Radio in Burma under the military dictatorship.

I was a champion badminton player and some of my regular training included a seven mile run early in the morning around the lake in Rangoon. My younger brother was a bicycle racing champion and I would ride along with them every other day when not jogging in the morning.

A 50 mile round trip was the norm and on Monday, June 12th 1972, having come back from a training ride and waiting to take a shower when a Van pulled up in front of the house and three men got out and told me in a peremptory tone that the Captain wanted to see me now. Once seated inside the van in the back seat, they covered my head and eyes with a black towel and warned me not to look anywhere but the floor. Having lived in Rangoon all my life and using a bicycle to get around, I knew exactly where we were from the stops and turns and I was taken to a mansion a few miles out of town. All businesses having been nationalized and the owners kicked out, this house belonging to one of the famous cloth merchants was turned into a secret interrogation center by the Army Intelligence and from the outside would look like a private residence and blend in with the other houses.

I was interrogated by many people non-stop asking the same questions again and again and the questions were why I was going to the US Embassy and British Embassy and what made me want to leave Burma having lived there all my life. I told them I was working on getting a travel document from the British Embassy and a Visa from the US Embassy to migrate to the United States. Mentioning United States was a taboo subject, but I had to tell the truth. They kept asking me why I wanted to leave Burma and was told I was a traitor and not loyal to the country. Whatever I told them, they countered that I was not telling the truth. When I asked what the truth was, they keep insisting that I knew the truth. The interrogation was done by soldiers and they were all armed to the teeth. Same questions by different people and same answers given. One of the interrogators inadvertently blurted out that they had been tailing me for a long time and knew all the places I frequented. They had taken my personal belongings including my watch when I was frisked upon arriving there and had no idea of how long I had been there or what time it was. Around midnight or so, this haranguing stopped and I was told to sleep on top of a table with all the bright lights on and soldiers taking turns watching me. All the glass on the windows had been painted and looking outside was out of the question.

Next day after the same ritual of interrogation, I was again blindfolded and had to sit on the floor of a Jeep type of vehicle in the back with soldiers sitting on the rear seats. Feeling the butts of guns pressing against you made sure they meant business. The route taken was the same route we used to ride our racing bicycles every other morning and I knew the route and knew exactly where they took me. This is a route with only a couple of turns and one could not go wrong as to the area. The vehicle was driven about 14 miles out of town and it led to an Army Outpost in the middle of rubber plantations completely hidden from view from the road. None of the people in the vehicle talked and were silent so that their voices could not be heard or remembered. They pulled up to a gate and the sound of it opening to let us through and drove another couple of hundred  yards.

They got me out and two people, one on either side, guided me in to a building and suddenly pushed me in to a room and my blindfold was taken off and the door slammed shut.

I was in shock when I looked around and saw that I was in a 8’x8’ cell with a cement floor and on one side was a wooden bench made of 2x4s and the top part was a of wooden slats with about a 2 inch gap between the slats. It was about two feet wide and six feet long. I am six feet tall and exactly the same length was the bench and I noted that it was bolted to the wall and could not be moved. The room was of fairly new construction and was of a double wall design with about a two foot gap between the walls. The inner walls were of plywood and no protruding nails could be felt. The newness of the wood was evident and there was a single window towards the top edge and it looked out to another wall on the outside. There was just a very limited view of the sky. There was a light with a 40 watt bulb  on the top with a metal cage around it so it could not be removed or tampered with. The light was on all the time. The roof of the building which appeared to be like a barracks type had a corrugated tin roof and the cell felt like an oven. It was summer and the temperature normally is around 90 degrees plus with a humidity of 90 percent or more. Worse if it rained.

On the concrete floor, there were two clay pots of about a gallon capacity each with about a six inch opening on top and clay lids on both. I was gruffly told one was to be used for drinking water and other as a toilet. They were identical in size and shape and neither one had any water in it. The cell stank of vomit and urine and it was gagging.

Not having slept well the previous night, I lay down on the bench and fell asleep. Some time later the door opened and I was given a metal plate and a steel mug. A few minutes later, the door opened again and I was asked if I was vegetarian and when I said no, told me to bring my plate and a pile of rice was dumped on it. The next soldier ladled a hard boiled duck egg and some gravy on the rice. I started to ask something and was abruptly told I was not to speak unless they asked me to  and just shut up.
They also made sure my eyes were not wandering and I could not look towards the door or outside. They then took one of the pots and brought it back with some water in it and said it was for drinking and I wondered how he knew which pot was for water or the toilet. There were no markings to tell them apart. The door was locked from the outside and you were enveloped in a deathly silence except for the cawing of crows in the distance. I had no appetite even though I had not eaten in over 24 hours but took a bite out the egg and shoved some rice into my mouth with my fingers. There was no salt in the food. No spoon or fork to eat with. It was starting to make sense now. They did not need to used physical abuse or punishment, but mental abuse is more effective. The Military Junta was averse to University students and educated people who could discern right from wrong and thus systematically had a plan to get rid of them or put so much fear in their minds that they would become docile and not think of any thing revolutionary. The Armed Forces are used to giving orders and you do not question them.

Night came and I could tell from the sky, what little I could see was dark but did not know the time. It was very hot and humid in the cell but using my turban as a cover to keep the mosquitoes away, slept on and off. In the swamp like environment, it was a prime area for mosquitoes. The next morning, I was brought some milk tea which was lukewarm and had very little milk or sugar in it. I drank it anyway. Some time later the door opened and a man who looked like he might be from South India was let in by the soldiers and started to take the pots. People in Asia speak more than a single language and will switch from one to another and communicate fluently. I spoke four languages. I told the man in the S. Indian language that the pots were not clean and very unhygienic. The soldiers berated me for talking and almost got physical with me and wanted to know what I told the man. I was not sure if they understood what I had said but I lied and told them that I thanked the man for doing his job well. I was reminded again not to open my mouth. While this was going on, I heard the sound of like clay pots being smashed or falling and breaking  and a person yelling and saying who was going to pay for breaking the pots. The janitor, out of the goodness of his heart, understood what I told him and dropped the pots to break them so that he could bring me new ones. He brought the new pots and one was full of water. I made sure to separate the two and one of the soldiers handed me a roll of toilet paper which felt like sandpaper I would find out.

Most of my time was spent laying on the bench or taking naps as there was nothing to do. No radio, newspaper or books to read and only human sounds were when the soldiers would march in. Army boots make a distinctive sound on concrete. I was of the opinion that they must have made a mistake and would let me go home soon. A cup of afternoon tea was given and and in the evening was a meal of rice and stew which I guessed was goat mutton or something close. The meat was tough and of the two pieces given, one was gristle hard to chew and a piece got stuck between my teeth. The food had no salt in it and was inedible. Hard to dig out food stuck between your teeth without a toothpick. Quick lesson learned on how we take things for granted. No toothbrush or toothpaste to clean your teeth and I soon had diarrhea from the insipid food and lack of hygiene. I ran out of toilet paper on the second day and also quickly found out that going to the toilet became a test of mind over matter, literally.

Did not take me long to find out that it is hard to control your pee while you evacuate your bowels and vice versa. The pot opening was only large enough for one purpose at a time. This was all part of mental torture. The water provided was barely enough to drink and washing hands after using the pot toilet was not part of the plan. Thus the diarrhea. When I asked for more toilet paper the next day, I was told that I was given a week’s supply and here I could not even use the paper for two toilet visits. I was told that they would not be lenient the next time and to control what I use. The allotted ration was four sheets of toilet paper a day. On that day I was given an Army issue mosquito net, a Burmese sarong and a small bar of soap. I was told to wear the sarong and take off the bicycle shorts I had been wearing. I was told to follow the soldiers and not to look up or around and not to try anything funny. Took about twenty steps and was out of the building and there was a water bib on the wall and told to quickly wash myself. All of two minutes was allowed and told to go back in. Had just enough time to wet my body due to low water pressure and nothing to pour water from.

It was the peak of summer and temperature had to be over a hundred degrees F and the humidity about the same. I soon realized that I had lost count of what day or date it was and had to think back as to what meals I had and counted back the days. I had read stories of mental torture by dictatorial regimes where they used mental torture and broke people down till they became vegetables. Made up my mind not to fall in to this abyss and stay in control. With nothing to do, time moves very slowly and your mind starts to wander. I started exercising by walking in a figure eight pattern as there was only enough room to do that and also running on the spot and doing knee bends and squats. With nothing to do, I had to keep my mind alert and started doing Yoga exercises and meditation. A lot of time was spent fervently praying. As a practicing Sikh, we believe God creates us in his Image and as such gave us this body as a temple to take care of. As such, Sikhs do not cut their hair and maintain their body as created by God. I had a full head of long hair which came down to my waist and a beard down to my belly-button. Normally, the beard is rolled up and tucked in under the chin and held in place with a bobby-pin. With all the sweat and heat, I opened out my beard and saved the bobby-pin which was made of strong tempered steel for the spring action.

To keep track of the date and days, I started making marks under the bench where it could not be seen and was able to maintain a calendar. Sikhs carry a small comb in their hair which is tied in a topknot and it came in handy to comb my hair and keep it tidy. Since I was in a small cell all by myself, I felt there was no need to look presentable and most times stayed naked because of the heat and let my hair down to keep it dry from sweat in the heat and humidity. Seven days went by and I was again asked to get out and wash myself. I asked if I could have some extra time to wash my hair but that was immediately shot down and told that a barber will come by periodically and I could get my hair cut. This was not going to happen that as a Sikh, hair is sacrosanct and cutting my hair would be sacrilege. In other words, Sikhs are the original Hippies.

This was all part of how they had been trained and knew that they could break me down with poor diet and mental torture. They had learned from the Russians that mental torture is easy and hard to prove and they could not be accused of physical abuse. Food getting stuck in my teeth was a problem and one day there was fish on the menu and luckily for me it had a toothpick size and shape bone in it and it was an Eureka moment for me. This would make a perfect toothpick and I saved it and put it to good use. The Army has a system of keeping the guards and sentries alert by having them strike a hanging piece of railroad track with a metal rod on the hour, every hour. Six pm would mean six strikes and nine would be nine. It became easy to keep track of the time by listening to he sounds of the gongs.

To stay mentally alert, I made a plan to have imaginary QSOs with stations by mouthing off in CW and having long and detailed exchanges of information. Of course, I had to not sound it out loud but just for myself so as not to annoy the guards. The longer the QSO, the more time it took and the better it was. I had plenty of time and wasn’t going anywhere. The daily routine of waking up, exercising, praying, meditating etc., was getting monotonous and time was moving very slowly. I was spending more and more time meditating and it was going in to hours at a time and I was feeling better for it as it was giving me peace of mind.

A month had gone by and since my shirt had been soaking and drenched in sweat, one of the buttons came off due to rotting thread. I asked the guard for needle and thread and he just laughed it off. I was always trying to stay cool by not wearing clothes as the wet clothes were causing rashes from the salt. One time I overheard one guard tell the other that I looked like a mountain man and not to look into my eyes as I had a distant look which they did not like. One day, I decided to stand on the bench and put my hand out of the inside window and see if I could feel anything. There was a gap of about eighteen inches between the walls and feeling along the horizontal 2×4 between the walls, I felt something on the wood and picked up a piece of wire about and inch and a half long. I saved it and since I have a mechanical engineering background, decided to make a needle. Had a lot of idle time and sharpened the wire on the concrete floor and made it in to a sharp point. It was of no use without a hole to  pull thread.

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Remembering the bobby pin I had saved, it occurred to me that it was made of very hard tempered steel and if I could grind it down in to a point like a drill bit, I might be able to use it to make a hole in the wire. I had to make sure that there were no guards expected making their rounds or meal times and started grinding the steel pin in to a sharp point. The dull end of the wire was ground into a flat part and with the sharpened bobby pin, I slowing pushed into the flattened part of the wire while turning the drill bit back and forth. After a few hours of trying over many days, I had made a dent in to the metal and started the process from the other side now. Took me eight  days to punch a hole in it and getting some thread was easy as all I had to do was pull a piece from the mosquito net. I soon had a working needle and thread. The button was put on, but had no use for the shirt as I was better not wearing any clothes.

I had by now figured out the routine and the timings of the guards and noticed that if the guard was smoking  or lit a cigarette, it meant having a few extra minutes to wash myself. Guards are normally not allowed to smoke on the job, but they bend the rules as needed. On one such day, I noticed plenty of wood chips about the size of a quarter laying around the area where the water pipe was and probably left over from the construction. Also noticed that if the guard was smoking, he would step away to smoke but still be able to see me as he did not want to be surprised by his superior. This gave me a chance to quickly pick up a piece or two of small wood chips and sneak them in. With plenty of free time, I decided to make them in to beads for meditating. I started grinding the wood piece on the rough concrete floor and from a cube shape made it in to a round ball like a marble. Making a hole was not a problem as I had the drill I made of the bobby pin and after a few hours of twisting the drill in the wood, a hole was made. I learned the hard way that it was better to drill the hole first and the grind down the wood as a couple of the balls cracked when I forced the drill in to the wood. My concern was getting the right size wood pieces surreptitiously without the guards noticing. The grinding and finishing work was done in a corner under the bench where the guards could not easily see. It took eleven months to make the beads and I had the full 108 finished pieces and then slowly removing thread from the mosquito net from various areas to be not noticed.

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In the pictures of the beads one can see that some of them have imperfections and not all of them are the same size but very close to each other. At first they were lighter in color but using them with sweaty palms and fingers gave them a darker patina. Making the beads had to be done without the guards noticing and was only worked on at different times of the day or night. I was not aware of other people being there as I did not hear any sounds or movement and this led me to believe that I was the only one there. Staying indoors all the time except for a few minutes when I was allowed to wash myself, I longed to go out in the sun. My complexion was looking milquetoast white and the sunburn and tan on my arms and legs was all gone.

One day when the guards appeared to be in a lighter mood, I asked one of them if they would let me do some work to pass the time . I could pull weeds etc. and the quick retort was that I was not a criminal and they could not make me work. When asked why, I was told I was in ‘Protective Custody’ and not someone serving time for a crime. How I wished I was a criminal then just so I could be outside in the open and do work to stay fit. When I had been there a couple of months, I felt dejected and sort of came to the conclusion that I would spend the rest of my life there and die there. I accepted that eventuality and in a way it was a good thing because when meditating, one has to tune out all extraneous distractions and only concentrate on closing your eyes and focusing on the area between the eyes which is called the third eye. Sitting cross legged, I would concentrate on this and I could feel my breathing and heart rate slowing down and a calm feeling was felt. Over the course of doing this repeatedly, I would lose track of time and go in to a sort of trance and a feeling of sublime tranquility. I could meditate for hours and not feel physical discomfort. First it was for a couple of hours and as time went on, longer periods of meditation happened.  One day I was abruptly shaken and told that I had not eaten my lunch meal and they wanted to know if I was protesting with a hunger strike. I was not aware that I had sat in the meditative pose from early morning and now it was time for the evening meal. I did not feel any hunger, but it was the best feeling which cannot be described. Meditation is a great tool and I made full use of it. It would not have been easy to reach that stage in the outside world with all the worldly distractions. Plus it was a good way to pass the time.

I had noticed that there were rat droppings to be seen some mornings which meant that there were rats. I started leaving clumps of rice on the floor and watched as a rat would come in from the window down the 2/4s and eat it. Became sort of a pet, but I was not sure if there was only one that came in to my cell. I enjoyed feeding the rat.

The bench was situated on the side where the skylight was and it became a habit to use the mosquito net as a padding and if I noticed mosquitoes, use my old turban as a cover while sleeping without any clothes on.

One night I was woken up by a loud squealing sound and from my supine position on the bench saw that a full grown cobra snake had come in from the window and crawled over my thighs and had caught the rat in its mouth and was swallowing it. The snake had the rat head first in its mouth and only the tail was visible. As I looked at the snake from my position on the bench, the snake was at eye level and we had eye to eye contact. I started thinking that if the snake had wanted to harm me, it could have bitten me when it came in I would be dead by now. It would have been easy to just grab the snake and kill it as it was vulnerable with a large rat in its mouth and could not strike to kill.  Part of the snake  was over my thighs and not wanting to do anything, watch the snake swallow the rat and and digest it . About three hours went by and the snake slowly made movement and went out the way it came in. I can never forget the sight and feeling of the snake crawling over my naked body and I was thinking of the worst case scenario of the snake striking at a part of my body that stood out.

Thirteen months  and sixteen days from the time I was brought here, the door opened and  I was told to wash up and put on a clean T-shirt and sarong they had brought. I was blindfolded and they took me to an office and  a person who was a Major spoke and said I was going to a meeting to meet someone. I was put into a Jeep and could tell that there was a driver and another passenger and took me to the Main Jail where I was escorted in to a meeting room with a table and six chairs. I was then informed that I was meeting the British Ambassador and the conversation was going to be recorded and that I was to be discrete and there would be consequences if I said the wrong things.

After about a wait of twenty minutes, a well dressed gentleman in a suit and a lady walked in. He introduced himself as the Ambassador and the lady was his secretary who would make notes and record everything with a tape recorder and if I had any objections. I said no and went on to say that I felt like a celebrity with everyone making a recording. This happened so fast that only the Ambassador caught on that there was another recorder in the room. He was looking at me dressed in a T-shirt and sarong which was not my usual dress code and without my turban. The Ambassador asked me if I was treated well? I looked at him with good  eye contact and said,’ Your Excellency, I cannot complain.’ He replied that he understood. The Burmese are well educated and fluent in written English, but are not used to speaking it. My reply went over their heads which was good and the Ambassador said it looked like I had lost weight. I told him I always wanted to lose weight and with the diet they have me on it was  helping me lose weight fast. He asked me if I had any questions and I asked him why I was incarcerated at which point my minder butted in and said I was not in jail, but in protective custody. I asked to have my day in court and to see a lawyer if I was being accused of any crime. At that point the meeting was abruptly halted and I was taken back to my cell. Back to the routine of praying, exercising etc.

A month and half later another meeting with the Ambassador took place and told me that he had been in contact with my family and that the British Government was pressing the Burmese authorities to honor International law and do the proper thing. Either put me on trial or let me go. He asked me if I still wanted to leave the country, and I said that yes, I would love to go to the US. I was allowed to leave on November 23rd morning, 1973 and my personal items returned to me and was given an hour’s time to meet my family. They had arranged for me to leave Rangoon and fly to Singapore. My father told me to call 9V1NR when I got there and ask him to help. We knew Doctor Charan, 9V1NR from our contacts on Amateur Radio and he took me to his house. When I got to his house, I asked to take a shower and got to wash my hair. It was my first time washing my hair after seventeen and a half months in Protective Custody! The US Embassy there arranged to have my immigration papers sent to Singapore and I got my paperwork done. The Doctor’s daughter and I got to like each other and I asked her to come with me to the States. Call it frequency response.  We got married with  our parents blessings even though my parents were not allowed to come to Singapore from Burma.

I arrived in Springfield Illinois on March 10, 1974 and stayed with my American sponsor who used to live in Burma and was an American doing ‘farming’. We later found out that he was part of the OSS and on assignment.

My family consisting of my wife Ranjit and two children moved to California in 1988 because of the better weather and love S. California. I got my call WB9TTN in Illinois and then got my vanity call of W6BUX which reflects part of my first name.

Having lived outside the United States and here, I can vouch that this is the best country in the world and the United States has been very good to me and my family. I did my paperwork the legal way and it was not easy, but I would not have done it any other way. I became an American Citizen  in 1979 and was a proudest day of my life to have become an American. My family and I live a very comfortable life.

I always wanted to do my part to pay my dues to this great nation which I call home and when I met Doug Dowds, W6HB during a visit to the Battleship USS IOWA, he said that they were in need of a CW operator and it did not take me long to volunteer and I enjoy the time I am on the ship and activate NI6BB. I live in Chatsworth, CA. and driving down to the ship taking the 405 is a small price to pay for my gratitude to this great country.  America has always been great and is still great.

 73, Gurbux