The plight of Burma’s political prisoners was among the principal issues raised by Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, after his five-day mission to the country last month.
Quintana, who has visited Burma four times since 2008, noted the positive steps taken by the government ‘that have the potential to bring about an improvement in the human rights situation of Myanmar (Burma).’ He also welcomed ‘what seems to be an opening of space for different actors and parties to engage in the political process.’
But while recognizing the efforts of the government to implement reforms, he also underscored the ‘serious and ongoing human rights concerns that need to be addressed.’ He also specifically cited the continuing detention of a large number of ‘prisoners of conscience.’
The military junta-dominated government continues to deny the existence of political prisoners in the country, but activists believe there are more than 2,000 people in the country who are in prison today because of their political activities. Burma is notorious for handing out insanely long sentences to captured dissidents. For example, Gen. Hso Ten of the Shan State Peace Council is serving a 106-year sentence for high treason. Hla Hla Win, a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, was detained for using an unregistered motorbike, but her jail sentence has been extended to 20 years.
Burma has more than 43 prisons and around 100 labor camps, but the majority of political prisoners are held in Yangon’s Insein prison. Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi spent time in this top security prison.
In his statement delivered at Yangon International Airport, Quintana shared the testimonies of ‘prisoners of conscience’ in Insein Prison. ‘I heard disturbing testimonies of prolonged sleep and food deprivation during interrogation, beatings, and the burning of bodily parts, including genital organs. I heard accounts of prisoners being confined in cells normally used for prison dogs as means of punishment. I also heard accounts of inadequate access to medical care, where prisoners had to pay for medication at their own cost.’
Quintana also mentioned the continuing allegations of ‘torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, the use of prisoners as porters for the military, and the transfers of prisoners to prisons in remote areas where they are unable to receive family visits or packages of essential medicine and supplemental food.’
Insein Prison has a total prison population of 10,000, but it has only three doctors. The prison overcrowding is blamed for the spread of illnesses in the detention facility.
Quintana’s report validates the claim of human rights groups that Burma prisoners suffer regular physical and psychological abuse from officials. It also affirms the notorious image of Insein prison as the ‘darkest hole in Burma,’ where 300 political prisoners are currently detained.
After witnessing the conditions of the ‘prisoners of conscience’, Quintana immediately called for their release on humanitarian grounds. He also reminded the government that their release would be a ‘central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would bring more benefit to Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy.’
If the Junta generals are serious in their commitment to promote democratic reforms, and if they want the approval of the international human rights community, they would do well to follow what Quintana has outlined in his latest report on the state of human rights in Burma. At the minimum, releasing the ‘prisoners of conscience’ will boost the democratic reform movement in the country.