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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent