"These paintings were really dangerous and also precious," said the 46-year-old former student protest leader, who produced more than 200 works during his six-and-a-half years in jail under the military.

"I really wanted to tell the government that locked me up for nothing: 'you might have put me behind bars but you cannot imprison my creativity'," he said.

Htein Lin was arrested in 1998 and imprisoned on the basis of an intercepted letter from a former "comrade" naming him as potentially still interested in opposition activity. Jail was fraught with hardship such as beatings, solitary confinement and unsanitary conditions, but it also became his "studio".

Using any material he could get his hands on, Htein Lin - who had previously focused on performance art - channelled his creativity to express the injustices that were a part of life during decades of military rule.

In March, Myanmar saw its first exhibition of works from former detained dissidents and organiser Tun Win Nyein, himself an ex-political prisoner, hopes the country will one day have its own museum devoted to prison art. "We want to show the next generation what people went through for the country," he told AFP. Htein Lin said each painting tells the story of the people around him in prison -- from the fellow political or criminal prisoners who donated their uniforms for canvasses, to the guards who helped smuggle in materials. Htein Lin said he hopes the political reforms in his homeland mean he will one day be able to exhibit all his prison art in Myanmar. He has so far resisted all offers to buy the paintings -- even those from celebrity fans. "This was part of history. We should not forget."

2013.01.02 Channel NewsAsia