Like many stories, Thawno’s started with a hello.
I was walking out of an important interview in the dusty, dog-ruled streets of Mae Sot, running the quotes over in my head and imagining the article to come, when Thawno stepped out into the street, all baggy pants and broad-smiled swagger, and stuck out his hand.
He motioned me into the storefront church where he worked, whirled out two plastic chairs, and we sat.
He told me a little about his life. He was 35, from the Chin state of western Burma, once taught martial arts in Mandalay and was convinced he was in love with Jenna Bush, George W.’s daughter.
“I saw her first in Rangoon,” he said. “She was using a Swedish passport, but it was probably fake, because she didn’t speak Swedish very well.”
“Are you sure it was her?” I asked Thawno. “Many foreigners have faces that look alike.”
“I knew her face from the pictures on MSN and NBC. She was wearing the same dress as the picture of her dancing with her father. It was her.”
It sounded like a case of mistaken-identity-celebrity-infatuation. I doubted Thawno would have known good Swedish from bad Swedish, but he was convinced and I was intrigued. Even more so when I learned that his love for Miss Bush would later be the cause of his arrest, torture and nine months of forced labor in a Burmese prison.
“I saw her first in Rangoon in April, 2003. She was smiling, sitting on a car, very lovely. I couldn’t talk to her, but I saw her again in Mandalay, in November, 2004. We walked to the top of Mandalay Hill together, she was beautiful and lovely. Too much I was loving her. That time she was using a Belgian passport and speaking French. ‘Why does she lie to me, and use a different passport every time?’ I asked her friend. She told me it was probably for security.
“I got her e-mail address and wrote to her, when I was living in Rangoon. I didn’t have an address to give her, but I told her to come anyway. Fortunately, I met her on the street one day. She told me, ‘I’m not Jenna Bush,’ but she laughed, and asked me what I thought of George Bush. She probably lied because of security. And if she wasn’t his daughter, why would she ask me about George Bush? I asked her to marry me. She told me maybe, if I come to her country.
“When she left I wrote her e-mails asking her to come back to marry me. It is not so difficult for her to come back to Burma to marry me, but for me to go to America, it is very difficult! I asked her to come back to be my wife. She was angry sometimes, she wrote back and called me a “wacko” – you know what is “wacko?” – and said I didn’t know about the world.
“I wrote letters to her father, to George Bush, asking for her hand in marriage. I thought maybe it is difficult for her to come back to Burma, so I decided to meet her in Thailand. I was getting on the bridge to cross over when the military police stopped me. They looked in my bag, and found copies of my letters to George Bush.
‘Why are you writing to George Bush?’ they asked me.
“They arrested me and took me to jail. They tied me up in a chair and beat me.
‘Why are you sending letters to George Bush?’ they asked.
‘“Because I am in love with his daughter,’ I told them.
‘“You are a fool,’ they said. ‘She is the highest of the high, and you are the lowest of the low, how can you think you could be together?”
‘“I love her because it is my right!’ I told them.
‘“What are your rights!’ they shouted, and beat me more.
“For nine months I was in prison. My hair and my beard turned white. The food was bad. I lived like an animal, because of the wicked government. The top generals, they did not beat me, but it was because of them that I was beaten. It was like they were behind the door.”
After nine months, Thawno escaped, and fled to Thailand, where a pastor took pity on him and gave him a job in the church. He still wrote e-mails to Jenna Bush, the real or imagined, but her replies were few. He sent his biography to the White House and the UN, hoping to get refugee status, but the e-mails didn’t go through. He suspected an intelligence agency blocked it. Thawno was tired of being toyed with.
Just recently he saw something on the news that had him disturbed.
“Tell me, I saw the White House press release that said she is engaged, do you think it’s true? It’s not good to lie to the world like that. I saw on an NBC interview, she said she was engaged, but then she laughed, and said she hasn’t set a date yet. So I think maybe it’s not true. I think maybe someone knew about us and got jealous. Do you think it’s true that she's engaged?”
I couldn’t lie to him. It was clear that he was delusional in his obsession with Jenna Bush, but I saw no reason to disbelieve his 9 months in prison. People had been imprisoned in Burma for less. Thawno was earnest in his questions. I told him, yes, I did think her engagement was true, but that there were plenty of other girls out there. Thawno looked away and didn’t speak for a while.
“Maybe it’s better for her,” he said, finally. “It’s hard to live in Burma. The government is very wicked. But I would like to hear from her personally, honestly. I love the truth. I love pure, hard and good character. I love freedom.”
I left Thawno to his reverie. A doctor I talked to later told me his celebrity obsession was a classic symptom of bipolar disorder.
Thawno had fled a country where dreams were beaten from people before they could even take seed. But you couldn’t beat a dream from Thawno. His had taken root, and Jenna Bush, the real or imagined, was in his heart for good.