Twelve years in prison was the price I paid for using drugs

A story told by Sai Sarm

My name is Sai Sarm and I was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the use and possession of illegal drugs. I have spent a quarter of my life in prison. Those 12 years were the lowest points of my life. I had to be apart from the ones I love, my daughter, my wife and my relatives.

Throughout my time in prison, I felt like I was living in the darkness and that I would not find my way back home. Sometimes thoughts of death occupied my mind, but I resisted, endured and survived. Whenever I got depressed and felt like I had lost all hope, I would look at a photo of my daughter and tell Myanmar 57 myself that one day I will be out of prison and I will see her and my wife’s faces again.

My life as a young man

I am from Muse, so I grew up on the Myanmar–China border in northern Shan State. I got married when I was 21 and we had our daughter after two years of marriage.

As I was the head of the household, I had to earn money and take care of my wife and daughter. It was not that easy to make money back then. So, in around 1994 or ‘95, I went to work for a man who owned a gambling business.

My job was to help the boss look after the customers. Of course, where there is gambling there tends to be drugs. When people lost money, some resorted to selling drugs to get more money to gamble. Others would use drugs as a way out [mentally].

Due to the nature of the work, all my time was spent there – even sleeping and eating. I had to go wherever they sent me and do whatever they asked me to do. Consequently, with more income, and having the nature of a man, I started to get involved in taking drugs and having lovers.

Later I got myself a mistress. Then my income reduced and what I earned was no longer enough to support my family.

The government had started to crack down on gambling and was closing gambling sites. I became very distressed due to the reduced income and about my family affairs. I resorted to drugs to ease my troubled mind.

But drugs could only temporarily reduce the stress. Gradually, I found myself becoming addicted. Although I really wanted to stop, I could not and there was no one that I could go to for advice. I was so lost. I was in the grips of a serious addiction on the one hand, and had the responsibility of supporting my family on the other. I knew that there was no one to blame but myself. Nobody was pressuring me to earn a certain amount of money, not my parents, not even my wife. Still, I could not save myself from addiction. I could not work at all if I did not use drugs.

Later my family members and people around me started to notice that I was using drugs. They wanted me to recover from the addiction. Several times my older brother took me for treatment, but it never worked.

At first, I was only taking khaku [black opium mixed with dry gotu-kola, a herbaceous plant used as a medicinal herb]. Later on, it was more difficult to get khaku, so I turned to heroin. In the beginning my friend would lace tobacco with heroin. I noticed that after smoking I would feel a calmness and an easing of the mind. Initially, I didn’t think about the side effects and bad consequences. I learned about those gradually. After two months, I knew that I was seriously addicted. Khaku was 500 kyat a pack, while the same amount of heroin was worth only 200. So, instead of khaku I continued using heroin.

Although I was using drugs, I never asked my family or parents for money. I had also never stolen from anyone. I would find my own way to get drugs. After I quit my job working for the gambling business, to support my wife and children (and my addiction), I started to work for a businessman who was involved in drug trafficking. At first, the boss allowed me to take some of the drugs. However, I found myself using an increasing amount. In the beginning I would use about a teaspoon of heroin each time, but that increased to two teaspoons. Finally, my boss fired me.

My arrest and detention

In 2002, one late evening, I brought some drugs with me to smoke with my friend. I was so drunk and high that I couldn’t return home on the same day (back then there was limited accessibility from one place to another by road). Unfortunately, we bumped into the anti-drug police. They searched me and found some heroin. They also tested me and found drugs in my urine.

I was charged for both use and possession of an illegal narcotic. I was sent to Muse court. I told the court that I only used drugs and that I was not involved in selling or trafficking them. I had to seek a recommendation from my ward authority [the head of the local administration] who confirmed that I was not involving in dealing drugs. With the recommendation the court sentenced me to 12 years imprisonment.

After I was sent to prison, one of my older sisters came to visit me. I told her ‘Do not worry about me and cry, I will come back and see you again’. I was right; I would get the chance to reunite with my relatives and see my sister once again.

As it was a long imprisonment, I was so depressed and felt like I had lost all hope. There was nothing I could do. I missed my family and home terribly. I was not sure when I would return home or if I would get out of the prison alive.

I could not do anything but tell myself that Karma will decide.

My life in prison

During the 12 years, I got transferred to different prisons. First, I was in Muse, then I was sent to Lashio. After that I was transferred to Mandalay and finally to Taung Lay Lone Prison in Taunggyi (Shan State’s capital) where I served over eight years.

When I was in Lashio prison, one of my inmate friends asked me to join him and some others in an escape attempt. Just before we made our attempt he said, ‘you need to eat a lot of rice so that you will have the strength’. However, we failed. The prison guards made me kneel down and held my hand across my head, they beat us and interrogated us one by one. Back then I could not speak Burmese very well. So, they asked another inmate, who is a Shan guy from Lashio, to help with interpretation. They asked why I had tried to escape and where I was planning to go. I told them I didn’t know why or where we were planning to go, that I was just following my friend. So, the prison authority did not punish me.

One day in Mandalay prison, the Myanmar army came to ask for 50 convicts, most of whom were serving longterm sentences of a minimum of 12 years. I was one of the 50 prisoners to be used by the military as porters on the frontline.

We had to carry their ammunition and weapons all the way from Kholam to Keng Tawng and Keng Kham in southern Shan State, a journey that lasted about 20 days.

When we were on the frontline in Keng Tawng, one of my convict friends, who is a Burmese guy and only had a three-year sentence, asked me to escape with him. We had the chance to go when the two of us were tasked to collect water from the river in the valley and the soldier who guarded us was on the hill in the distance. My friend gave me a sign to escape with him, but I refused to join him. Even if I had managed to escape, I would not have been able to work and take care of my family freely. And if the attempt failed, I would have had to serve a longer prison term.

I met that same inmate again in the Taung Lay Lone prison [in Taunggyi]. He told me that he should have listened to me. He would have been a free man by then, but they added more years to his sentence for trying to escape.

Release from prison

Most of the convicts I met in Taung Lay Lone were Shan. There were also prisoners of other nationalities and ethnicities, such as Indian and Chinese descent. Some had committed general crimes like stealing, robbery and killing. But most of the Shan convicts were charged with drug-related crimes – either use, possession or trafficking.

Prisoners were often rented out by prison authorities (who collect the profit) to work as forced labourers in the farms or paddy fields.

Rice field in Shan State, Myanmar
Rice field in Lashio township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

The prison staff asked the inmates to raise their hands if they knew how to plough and till the land. I did not raise my hand, although I did know how. But a few other inmates knew that I knew how to farm and the prison staff approached me and told me not to lie. So, I had no choice but to work on the farm. There were four of us in our group. I had to take the lead in working 200 acres of paddy field owned by the military.

The paddies happened to be having a good yield and so the prison authorities allowed me to have certain freedoms. I stayed in a make-shift shelter that we built ourselves and worked in the field during the day. I was still a convict and under the prison department’s watch.

For five years I had to work, for free, in the farm and paddy field. During those five years I had many chances to escape. But I did not as I knew it would not be a true freedom. I wanted to go back and stay with my wife, my children and my relatives freely. So, I had to resist the urge to escape.

Throughout 12 years of imprisonment, I had different experiences involving all kinds of work and forced labour. Towards the end of my prison term, I was called in by the monks to stay and assist in the monastery. I used to accompany the monks to collect alms. I stayed in the monastery for about six months. The monks told me that I no longer needed to worry about anything and that I was a free man. I replied to the monks that I would not feel like I was a truly free man until I got the discharge certificate from the prison department.

On the day I completed my 12 years in prison, a monk went to the prison authority to get me the discharge certificate. As soon as I saw it, I was so joyful that I could not control my tears. There were a few inmates who got released on the same day. We were hugging and looking at each other. We were too numb to even feel the happiness. We didn’t know if we should cry or laugh.

Looking back at my life in the prison, it was ups and downs. I’m not sure if I should say that I was lucky or unlucky. I was unlucky to get arrested and put in prison and I was put on the frontline as a porter, carrying weapons and ammunition. But I was lucky to have had the chance to stay in the monastery and do the morning alms round with the monks.

Return home

Returning home was quite a journey for me too. It had been over 10 years. I could no longer recognise the surroundings, including the houses or the people I met. I had to ask the names of their parents to identify who they were.

I was so happy that I got the chance to return to my hometown. I still am. People in the community treated me the same and there was no discrimination at all. I returned to my community as a totally renewed person and with a full recovery.

Village in northern Shan State
Village in northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

When I first arrived, I did not go out much as I did not want my relatives and people in the community to think that I had gone to look for drugs. I would stay at home and help my family in the household so as to gain back their trust.

After a while I gradually interacted with the community and re-entered into society. Over time, my full status as a normal person was restored. With the help and connection of one of my friends who was working in the business department of one of the militia groups in the area, I got work in the same department. Only then did I gain my physical and financial strength, and my self-esteem, back. Working for this department that serves the people gave me a chance to restore and recover. I needed that courage and strength to reunite with my daughter.

Reunion with my wife and daughter

I hadn’t seen my daughter’s face since the day I was arrested. Throughout my time in the prison, I only had a picture of her taken when she was a little child. I had no idea what she would be like by the time I was released.

Not long after my release, I had the chance to attend my daughter’s university graduation ceremony. Please imagine that! I had wasted over 10 years of my life in prison. I had left my daughter as a young child and she had already completed university! The day that I attended my daughter’s graduation ceremony was the happiest moment of my life. I do not know how to express the joy that I felt on that day.

I was so ashamed and had no confidence at all when I saw my wife’s and my daughter’s faces for the first time. I had lied to them and left them for such a long time. I had made a lot of mistakes. But it was important to admit my mistakes and face the consequences of what I had done. The guilt struck me as I was taking a picture with my wife and daughter. But I told myself that I would work hard, behave myself and become a new person.

This is my life story and it is a huge life lesson for me. I would like to encourage young people to learn from my mistake and my life. I would like to urge you to stay away from drugs. Finally, I would like to encourage all the young people to study hard and seek to become educated and live their lives wisely

Common themes and insights

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