Shell smiles as he drives his taxi around Yangon
Shell (47) was only a high school student in 1988 when he was organizing students as part of the 8888 pro-democracy protests. As the military began to crack down on dissent, he knew that if he went home, he would be arrested. So, he would evade them by staying in different houses for no more than two nights in a row.
On his second interrogation by the military intelligence after his arrest in 1988, he was blindfolded before 4-5 interrogators rushed into the room and violently beat him with sticks, leaving him bleeding and battered on the floor. He lost three front teeth and suffered extensive oral damage. This left him in severe pain and with difficulties eating and speaking, until it was repaired three years later. His restored image, with a new row of front teeth, was likened by friends to that of the shiny bumper on a new car; hence his nickname Shell.
Between 1988 and 2012, he spent three stints and a total of 14 years as a political prisoner for organizing and demonstrating in pro-democracy protests. During the periods out of prison, getting a job was incredibly difficult. After applying for work somewhere, the military police would pay a visit to the owner, making it clear that hiring him would result in their business being blacklisted and shut down. With no family to help, Shell would rely on his friends for support, sometimes working odd jobs in tea shops.
In 2012, he was given amnesty by president Thein Sein and released from prison. With the help of two close friends, he was soon able to put together a down payment to buy a car and become a taxi driver. Together with these friends, who were also former political prisoners, he started the Golden Harp initiative. Each of them began to put away a small amount of money - equivalent to about $50, every month. After 6-8 months, they would have enough saved to provide another former political prisoner with a down payment to buy a car, which would be paid back without interest over the next 6-8 months. Since then, Golden Harp has enabled more than 30 former political prisoners to receive small loans for the purchase of a car or to start a business.
"The policy of this country, we need to change. Even now, they are arresting the organizers [of demonstations]."
Shell, who married in 2012 and is now the father to a 1-year-old son, still isn't wavering in his activism. He continues to support political initiatives and has been leading discussions with prison officials and the government since 2013 on what it's like to be a prisoner, so they can feel empathy.