Secret message in Valentine's verse lands Burmese poet in prison

In a country where dissent is brutally crushed, the Burmese poet Saw Wai used whatever means he could to express his feelings about the ruling military regime.

Hidden in a supposed love poem entitled February 14 – Valentine's Day – the veteran poet delivered a message about the head of the junta. Read vertically, the first character in each line of the poem, written in Burmese, spelt out: "Power crazy senior general Than Shwe."

Whether the regime discovered the coded message in the eight-line poem or whether they were tipped off by an informer is unclear, but for Mr Wai the outcome has been all too obvious. On Wednesday the poet was arrested and detained by the authorities, just one day after his poem was published in the popular weekly magazine, Love Journal. "He got interrogated about it and arrested yesterday," a diplomatic source in Rangoon said last night.

Mr Wai writes gentle love poems which are published in magazines. He is also a member of a group of artists and actors called White Rainbow that helps HIV-infected children.

Outwardly his latest poem was just as harmless as those that preceded it. Telling the story of a man whose heart is broken after falling in love with a fashion model, he wrote: "You have to be in love truly, madly, deeply and then you can call it real love." The poem concluded with an apparent call for unity in the name of love, saying: "Millions of people who know how to love please clap your hands of gilded gold and laugh out loud." But hidden in the poem was Mr Wai's message about the regime's 74-year-old senior general, Than Shwe. In Burmese, the word for million is "Than" while the word for gold is "Shwe".

Myat Khaing, the editor of Love Journal, told journalists that he had been unaware of the poem's hidden meaning. It was published beneath a drawing of a heart with an arrow through it and the words, "I love you". But an unidentified editor in Rangoon who claims he saw Mr Wai arrested, told the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine: "Artists are trying to express their feelings in this current political situation in any way they can." With political parties in effect banned and with the country's leading opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, having spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest, performers and artists have a tradition of speaking out against the regime where they can.

Many of them – such as the Moustache Brothers comedy act based in Mandalay – have been imprisoned. During last September's democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, artists and performers were among those at the forefront of the rallies and several were arrested. Recently, a comedy group called The Four Fruits has become popular for its satirical jokes about the September crackdown by the regime.

Thousands were arrested during those demonstrations and up to 30 killed. While most of those arrested are believed to have been released, the regime continues to hold those it believes were the organisers. At the same time, despite international condemnation, the regime is continuing its efforts to suppress uncensored information entering the country. The fee for a satellite television licence is to rise to £375.

"This crackdown by the regime is one of the worst that Burma has experienced in decades," said Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for Burma Campaign UK. "But we are still seeing people speaking out – there are posters, graffiti... wherever people can find the small space to make a protest they are." She added: "The arrest of Mr Wai shows how utterly intolerant the regime is to any criticism."

The sole concession the regime has so far made in the aftermath of the crackdown was an agreement to meet Ms Suu Kyi, a request made by a UN envoy. There have been several meetings andan offer to free her if she and her National League for Democracy gave up their demands for democracy. She refused.

Reports from Rangoon yesterday suggested it was all but impossible to obtain a copy of Love Journal in which Mr Wai's poem was published. Reports said that in the aftermath of its publication the authorities had dispatched officials to seize all copies, but also that as word of the poem and its hidden message spread around the city, the magazine quickly sold out.

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