The American Businessman Who Went Through Hell in a Burmese Prison

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As soon as they saw the video of the raid, John and Alex caught the next flight back to Mandalay, eager to straighten out the mess. When John got to the RIC, he’d show them paperwork detailing the various permissions III M had been granted to grow hemp provided it contained minuscule levels of THC—less than 0.3%. Attempting to produce legal cannabis in a Golden Triangle country, which continues to supply a sizable chunk of the region’s heroin, opium, and methamphetamine, and where the sale of narcotics (marijuana included) often carries a life sentence, requires considerable nerve. It’s something only someone confident in their ability to navigate the laws and customs of Southeast Asia would attempt. The stakeholders of III M thought they had both.

John and Alex landed in Mandalay in the early afternoon and decided they would stay at their hotel in the city that night and assess the situation before driving to the RIC in the morning. By now they were used to the commute. Alex would usually catch an extra hour of sleep in the back of the Ford pickup while his father blared Creedence and the Stones, smoking American Spirits and barreling down the jungle roads.

John spent the afternoon making phone calls—to his lawyers, his partners, his family, to the RIC itself, where the situation was getting worse by the hour. The police had taken two employees into custody: Ko Shein Latt, or “Shein,” was a contractor in his mid-thirties who had built most of the irrigation system; Ma Shun Lae Myat Noe, or “Myat,” was a chatty, sociable 22-year-old intern who’d only started working for III M three weeks earlier. She’d learned English at a college in Mandalay and had been working as the farm’s translator.

The “raid” hadn’t been menacing at first. It started more like an exploration than a seizure. Myat showed the police around, explaining the generator system, pointing out the tidy stone path John had designed. But a few hours later, she was under arrest.

As John learned all this over the phone, his confidence dissolved. This can’t be good, he thought. He wanted Alex and the other Americans out of Myanmar as soon as possible. “Get the next flight to Thailand,” he told Alex. “Just get out of here.”

As Alex climbed into a cab bound for the airport, John had a moment of doubt: “Hey Alex, do you think maybe I should go with you?”

Alex calmed his father down: “Even the lawyer said that they won’t arrest an American.”

Later that night, John was getting ready for bed when there was a knock at the door. Six or seven police and military officers barged into the hotel room and started barking at John in broken English. They ordered him to stand in a corner while they searched the room.

I have to speak to someone in authority, John thought. He had the confidence of the innocent—and the entitlement of an American. I have to just power through this. I have the paperwork, I’m in the right, and these guys are fuckin’ wrong.

While the officers conducted their search, John emailed his partner Doug for help: “Getting a visit by the police. You may have to make a call to the ambassador.”

The police marched John out of the hotel, put him in the back of an old Toyota sedan, and they drove into the night, destination unknown. It dawned on John that he might not make it through the night alive.

What are they going to do, he thought, take me to a field and shoot me?

They made a few stops at police outposts along the way. At one, he snapped a photo of the Burmese sign at the gate and sent it to Doug in case he disappeared.

Doug later emailed back: “Don’t talk. Just tell them about meeting with chief minister [who had granted their hemp permit]… Call U.S. Embassy for help too. You are an American. They won’t torture you.”

It was a long, disorienting night. In the morning, they finally arrived at the RIC, and John saw scores of agents swarming the farm, pulling up plants, dismantling everything, documenting it all for evidence. He realized this wasn’t a misunderstanding he could “clear up” with a lawyer and some official-looking paperwork. For the first time, he knew he was screwed.

“I was the only Asian kid in my school,” John says. “I got in more fights than anyone you know.”

Every branch of the Myanmar police was there—the neighborhood, the township, the district, the region of Mandalay, the drug enforcement division, and the Special Branch, one element of Myanmar’s vast intelligence apparatus—and not one of them was interested in seeing permits or hearing John explain the distinctions between CBD and THC, hemp from cannabis.

He still had his phone, which he used to warn his partners. Again, he emailed Doug in Bangkok: “Promise me you won’t come back to Myanmar.”

If the sight of his crops being yanked from the ground was dispiriting to John, the sight of Myat and Shein was devastating. They were being held in the greenhouse office. Myat was sobbing, slumped against the wall. Shein sat, weary and confused, with his head in his hands. Dozens of workers had come from their nearby villages and gathered at the RIC to watch as the authorities destroyed their year’s worth of work.

The police then loaded Myat, Shein, and John into a truck that was guarded by half a dozen police with rifles. The truck drove away, followed by three other police vehicles. They had no idea where they were going, or why.

WWhen John was five, he began studying judo at a Buddhist center in Denver, realizing early on that he had a focus and discipline the other students lacked. “I got in more fights than anyone you know,” John says. “I was the only Asian kid in my school.”

It was Denver in the early ’60s, a decade after the Korean War, two since Pearl Harbor, and John was an all-purpose Asian villain for backyard war games and schoolyard taunts. (His father, a second-generation American born in Oakland, spent the first years of World War II in a Wyoming internment camp.) John kept practicing, studying, focusing… and the fights he got into outside judo got shorter and shorter. He says that when he was 11 or 12, he was a national junior champion, landing on the cover of Judo magazine.

Now, at 62, his focus and discipline would be put to the test like never before.

Eventually, the truck carrying John, Myat, and Shein reached a squat, cinder block building in the township of Ngazun, where they were turned over to a greasy-palmed police captain they came to call “the Snake.”

The Snake took a special interest in his prosperous-looking Japanese American guest. He confiscated John’s phone and demanded that he tell him the code.

John refused. “Go fuck yourself,” he told him. The Snake said if he didn’t give him the code, he’d be in prison for a long time.

“I don’t care,” John said. “I’m not giving you the code.” The stalemate continued. “Go fuck yourself,” John said again.

At this, the Snake welcomed John and Shein into their new home, a 23-by-25-foot cell packed with nearly two dozen inmates and a shared hole in the muddy floor for a toilet. Myat was transferred to the women’s area of the prison.

Days later, John asked for a phone so he could call the U.S. Embassy. The Snake refused. John kept pressing, until eventually the Snake said he could borrow his phone, but only to call his wife, not the embassy.

John called Ann in Colorado. “If I have to stay here,” he told her, “I’m not gonna make it.”

The jail didn’t provide inmates with food or water, and if you were lucky enough, as John, Shein, and Myat were, to have a friend or a family member show up with a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, or a couple of oranges, the guards had to be bribed into actually giving it to you. In fact, every point of contact with the outside world was an opportunity for graft.

The guards never let the inmates outside, even for a moment. John and Shein remained in their cell 24 hours a day, sitting on the floor in the unbearable heat, trying to ignore the moans of their cellmates and the rank stench coming from the hole in the floor. Every morning John would claim his meager share of the wall, a patch of concrete to lean against, and defend it all day long if he had to.

The prisoners slept inches apart on blankets laid over the floor. At night, the cell’s population would swell, with scorpions and other nocturnal creatures crawling in to join them. Not that anyone could sleep. The guards woke them every hour on the hour, slamming a bell 11 times for 11 p.m., 12 times for midnight, etc. They pounded whatever cheap liquor their petty bribes could buy them, and fucked with whomever they liked. John knew it could have been worse. Like most prisoners, he was sometimes beaten on the backs of his legs with bamboo sticks, but they never used their batons on him.

But the isolation was punishing enough. They were completely cut off from the outside world, and John had no one to speak to and no information on the RIC or his family.

The next test came in the form of a psychopathic inmate who set his sights on the five-foot-six American.

After 30 days in Ngazun, John, Myat, and Shein were transferred 50 miles southwest to Myingyan Prison. Here, John and Shein shared a tiny cell. The beds were wooden pallets. The toilet was, again, a hole in the floor. They were permitted to wash twice a week, from a communal trough that ensured bacteria and disease flowed freely from one inmate to another.

Built in the late 19th century, Myingyan is one of Myanmar’s oldest, most notorious prisons, having held untold numbers of murderers, addicts, and thieves, but also political prisoners, journalists, dissidents—in some cases, the very people for whom John had worked behind the scenes to keep out of places like this. In January 2015, he helped orchestrate the release of a Muslim physician, Dr. Tun Aung, who’d been unjustly jailed for his involvement in a violent protest in western Myanmar a few years years earlier. Now, John would get a taste of the conditions he’d fought against.

The next test came in the form of a psychopathic inmate who set his sights on the five-foot-six American. The guy was street-hardened and sinewy, the undisputed alpha of the high-security area. He often dropped blackbirds with a slingshot in the prison yard and spit-roasted them over a fire he’d build in an old paint can for dinner. But when he stepped to John, inching his face closer and closer, John locked in on his eyes and prayed for a draw. They stood there for what seemed like hours, until the younger man gave in, bumping John with a shoulder as he turned. When John shoved him back, some mutual respect was achieved.

John didn’t have to hunt blackbirds to eat at Myingyan. Three or four times a week, his assistant made the trip to the prison and bribed a full cast of guards and administrators (six or seven of them at $7 each) to give John, Shein, and Myat the food she brought them—bread, peanut butter, occasionally a styrofoam container of local takeout: rice and a greasy piece of meat. John’s favorite meal was his assistant’s homemade chicken soup.

As Myingyan’s sole English speaker—on the men’s side anyway, since Myat was again being held on the women’s side—John had few companions among his fellow inmates. He befriended one of the weakest, a Thai addict in his sixties, frail and covered in gang tattoos, with whom he often shared the food he smuggled in from the outside. He also became close with another inmate who had been a captain in the military until he was imprisoned for marrying two women at once. The man had a contraband cellphone he let John use for a price and only once in a while. One day, John used it to call his youngest son, Jake, who was a senior at Montana State. “The tone of his voice,” Jake recalls. “He sounded broken. He was saying, ‘I don’t know how long… this could be forever.’ There was no optimism in his voice, no power to fight back. That made me feel really bad… scared. Like, what if he never came back?”

Jake sent his father anything he could find that might boost his spirits or strengthen his resolve—a Bob Dylan lyric or a quote from the Khalil Gibran book he was reading. He’d write it down, take a photo, and send it via WhatsApp to his father’s assistant. She’d then transcribe the message on paper, roll it into a tube, and slip it into the casing of a ballpoint pen she’d smuggle in to John.

“Those messages,” he would later say, “probably saved my life.”