Now A Houstonian, He Survived Burma -- Barely

Now A Houstonian, He Survived Burma -- Barely
Photos by Mike Giglio

Victor Win knew Burma's secret police were coming for him. All he could do was wait.

It was the spring of 1965, two years after Burma's military toppled its elected government and jailed its leaders. Win, who fled the country in 1971 and eventually settled in Houston, was a 27-year-old architect with a wife and two young kids. And he had been involved in a plot to overthrow the junta.

The city of Rangoon was a picture of fear in those days. Each night at 7 p.m., nervous residents waited by radios for the latest decree -- the state would take over all private businesses without compensation; bills of 100 kyats and larger (most Burmese stashed their savings at home) were no longer valid.

The decrees went into effect immediately. When frantic people rushed out to spend their large bills, for instance, they were arrested on the spot.

And people would constantly disappear off the street.

Colonel Kyi Maung kept his power immediately following the coup but soon became disillusioned with the new regime. He was forced to resign in 1963, and he took his opposition underground. Maung was a friend of the family, so Win was there to help, arranging meetings with the Colonel and putting him up in his home. But spies were everywhere.

"Even among ourselves," Win says. "You never know who's your real friend."

Autographed photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, and black-and-white photos of Win with Colonel Maung, Burmese artist Pawoothet and singer Ma Ma Aye
Autographed photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, and black-and-white photos of Win with Colonel Maung, Burmese artist Pawoothet and singer Ma Ma Aye

The military intelligence was so thorough that Maung's plans were quickly discovered -- someone had been captured and tortured into a detailed confession. Maung and others began to go missing.

Win knew it was only a matter of time. But the junta had a policy -- anyone who fled would have his family arrested instead. Win lived in a house along the river. One day a neighbor who wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses just like him was arrested and questioned. He knew the army was close.

"I just hoped they wouldn't pull me off the street," Win says.

One day in June, that's exactly what happened. Win was put in a local jail for three weeks. Then, with a sheet draped over his head, he was moved to Rangoon's infamous Insein prison.

The cell on one side contained about 30 people who had been arrested so their businesses could be claimed by the state. On the other side, Win later discovered via secret communication through holes in walls, was a police commissioner who had been part of Maung's movement and who -- like the former elected officials above -- was never allowed to leave his cell.

Win was in solitary confinement as well but allowed outside for 30 minutes a day to wash and change the buckets of water he used as plumbing. This lasted 11 months, after which a few cellmates rotated in here and there. After 13 months, Win was allowed to write a short letter to his wife. It was the first word she received of what had become of him.

Win and the other prisoners waited anxiously as military holidays, Christmas and New Year's approached, hoping the army would see fit to release them. New levels of depression sunk in once they passed. Finally, on October 12, 1967, after nearly two and a half years, Win was freed on what the junta termed a day of amnesty.

It was the middle of the afternoon, and he took the bus to his house. His children didn't recognize him. He found that their heads had been filled with propaganda at school.

"If I don't leave the country, I will be in and out of jail for the rest of my life," Win remembers thinking.

That fate did befall Win's partner in his architecture firm, who remained in Burma and recently died of liver failure while in custody. Colonel Maung went on to become vice president of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy -- which won in a landslide in the first and only elections under the junta's rule, in 1990, and saw its members jailed as a result. Maung died in 2004; military intelligence still keeps constant watch of his home, where his wife now lives.

Win's comfortable house in Westbranch has paintings on the wall by the famous Burmese artist Pawoothet -- with whom he can be seen in black and white photos -- and portraits of his son, a medical doctor, and daughter, who works in the state comptroller's office.

After his release from prison, it took more than three years to secure his way out of Burma, which was an affidavit of non-citizenship. He was allowed to fly only to Hong Kong, with just $12 for his entire family, and arrange his trip to the United States from there, which he did by borrowing money.

His port of entry was San Francisco, and he found work at an architectural firm in Montana, which provided the family with its first experience of snow -- and lots of it. Win eventually relocated to Florida and then, in 1978, to Houston, where he was a principal in the architectural firm Kaufman Meeks. Win, 71, retired last September.

He hasn't yet been back to Burma but says he'd like to visit if the regime changes. (Because he doesn't plan to do so unless it does, Win was willing to let the Houston Press use his name and photograph. Others were not.) He thinks any change will need to come from within the military, which maintains a ruthless hold on all forms of power in the country. Because of he this, he says, attempted revolutions like the student-led one in 1988 and monk-led one in 2007 are bound to fail.

"It's not going to work. They're going to come up and shoot you and kill you," he says, remembering that he felt somewhat safe from execution during his imprisonment thanks to his affiliation with Colonel Maung.

"As a student, as a monk--there's no way you can really find out what happened to them."


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