Voices from Burma's Gulag
Image Credit: Mikhail Esteves

Voices from Burma's Gulag

 
 

Following are reflections from three of Burma’s recently-released political prisoners, all of whom are still inside the country and therefore request that pseudonyms be used.

Ko Zaw was one of 55 Burmese political prisoners freed as part of a controversial May 2011 announcement that saw almost 17,000 prisoners released from jail.

‘I was released on May 17 under the so-called amnesty,’ he says, after spending almost four years in Myingyan prison, far from his family in Arakan in Burma's west, close to the border with Bangladesh. In a country that holds almost 2,000 political prisoners, where some sentences amount to almost a century of jail time, human rights groups and Burmese opposition figures criticised the releases, as most of those freed were nearing the end of their sentences in any case.

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Mo Naing, another recently freed political prisoner, was accused of being one of the ringleaders of the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution,’ a series of nationwide demonstrations against rising living costs that spiralled into a saffron-clad monk-led protest against military rule. Recalling the fait accompli that passed for his trial he said: ‘My lawyer wasn’t allowed to defend me at court, and in fact I was sentenced before the trial was finished.’

Mo Naing’s summary injustice was in contrast to the experience of U Tin, another of the recently-released contingent who was also caught up in the Saffron dragnet. He recounts that the trial period ‘took almost one year, and I had been tried every week since middle of December 2007,’ before finally receiving a nine-year sentence on November 11, 2008.

Jail conditions for Burma’s political prisoners are always harsh, according to accounts given by former detainees. U Tin recalls his time in the remote Hkamti prison, where he and the other detainees had to drink water drawn from a nearby stream as there was no other source of drinking water in the surrounding area. ‘There’s a gold mine nearby and the water is contaminated,’ says U Tin, ‘and there was no doctor at the prison.’

U Tin was transferred to Hkamti from the police battalion at Kyauktan township, south of Burma's old capital and largest city Rangoon. Former United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was scheduled to visit the location during October 2007, but, prior to the envoy’s arrival, U Tin and the other detainees were moved to another police station. U Tin believes this was a ruse, an attempt to convince the envoy that no civilians were arbitrarily detained during the Saffron protests and crackdown. UN human rights representatives are often refused entry to Burma, and when access to the country is granted, the envoys are given limited access to political detainees. Since calling for a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes in Burma, the current UN envoy, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has been refused a visa for Burma.

Remembering some of the violence meted out by the government’s security forces during that time, U Tin says, ‘I was beaten and arrested near the Shwe Gon Taing bus stop in Rangoon by Swan Arr Shin members,’ he says referring to the notorious faux-civilian hired-thug group, whose name translates as ‘Masters of Force.’ The government sometimes deploys the group to intimidate or even harm opponents.

The Mae Sot-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which helped in the setting-up of these interviews, estimates that 10,000 Burmese may have been tortured by the country’s security personnel since an August 1988 student rebellion against the military government. Some political detainees escape this cruelty, however, even if prison conditions in themselves are harsh. Mo Naing says that ‘although I wasn’t physically tortured when I was detained in both prisons, I faced difficulties to receive health care as the authorities do not provide adequate health care.’

However, torture is a reality for many detainees. After his arrest in October 2007, at his home in Arakan State, Ko Zaw was tortured. He explains that he ‘was handcuffed and taken by motorcycle to the police station. I was continuously interrogated at night and in the day time from the time I arrived in police custody. I was also deprived of drinking water, meals, sleeping and I wasn’t allowed to have a bath. When I was interrogated, I was beaten hard on my ears, punched in my face and was told to stand up for a long time.’

U Tin says that the absence of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has made life tougher than it might otherwise be for political prisoners. The ICRC has suspended visits to political prisoners since early 2006, citing the State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) insistence that it monitor the meetings, a contravention of ICRC procedures and of international law. However, a recent visit to Burma by US Sen. John McCain seems to have opened the door for the ICRC, somewhat at least. McCain raised the issue in meetings with the Burmese government, and subsequently, state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reported on July 7 that three ICRC officials visited three prisons on July 1 and 2, though political prisoners weren’t seen.

The SPDC was the name for the Burmese military junta prior to the establishment of a nominally civilian government in March 2011, after rigged elections in November 2010 produced a landslide win for the party formed by the SPDC – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Attempts by some of the tiny grouping of opposition politicians in Burma’s new parliament to promote a wider amnesty for the country’s political prisoners and prisoners of conscience have fallen flat, to date.

The freeing of political prisoners – who are deemed mere criminals by the Burmese government – is regarded as a litmus test of the new Thein Sein-led Government’s reformist intentions by some Western counterparts, who say they could relax sanctions against the country's rulers if political prisoners are released. The country's best known former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed from house arrest on November 13, 2010. She has been warned not to get involved in political activity by the country's rulers, and to date has made only one trip outside of Rangoon, to the spectacular Buddhist temple-laden city of Bagan. 

Since the end of the opening session of parliament, some of the opposition parties, including the National Democratic Front (NDF), Democratic Party Myanmar, and the Peace and Diversity Party, have sought to stage demonstrations in support of Burma’s political detainees, but their requests to do so have been turned down.

The AAPP says that there are 1994 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in jail inside Burma, of which a total of six have been jailed since the country’s November 7, 2010 election, with three of those incarcerated since the March 30 inauguration of a quasi-civilian government. In total, 111 political prisoners have been released to date during 2011. Aside from those amnestied, the rest of the 111 had completed their prison sentences.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in Southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post, Asia TimesThe IrrawaddyISNSunday Business Post and others. He was in Mae Sot in June

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