‘Our Country’s One Big Prison’

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

‘Our Country’s One Big Prison’

The Burmese junta, already known as one of the cruellest regimes in the world, has been stepping up its oppression of political opponents. Phil Thornton reports from the Thai-Burma border, where he speaks with exiled politicians, army deserters, displaced villagers and former political prisoners.

The Burmese junta, already known as one of the cruellest regimes in the world, has been stepping up its oppression of political opponents. Phil Thornton reports from the Thai-Burma border, where he speaks with exiled politicians, army deserters, displaced villagers and former political prisoners.

Ruled by a group of generals orchestrating a vast network of security agencies, informers and neighbourhood spies, Burma has for years been regarded as one of the most repressive and isolated countries on the planet.

But in recent months the regime, which operates from the shadows of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to create widespread paranoia among citizens, has stepped up its attacks on what it perceives as enemies of the state – its own people and political opponents.

Secret police and paramilitary thugs have been dispatched in hundreds of night-time raids to drag opposition politicians, journalists, labour activists, artists, comedians, Internet bloggers and Buddhists monks and nuns from their beds.

The arrested are rarely charged, but are held, interrogated and tortured for days or months – without access to lawyers or family – in secret detention centres, jails or police cells. When prisoners are finally taken to court, it is usually done behind closed doors or locked prison gates and without legal representation. Draconian sentences handed down in the last few months have ranged from three to 69 years for alleged acts of civil disobedience.

The latest arrests are being seen by international observers as a cynical move by the regime to put political opponents in jail and therefore out of the way ahead of multi-party elections to be held next year.

The most recent high-profile arrest was that of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Already under house arrest since 2003, she was taken to Insein Jail and found guilty last month of breaching her detention.

She was detained after an intruder, an ex-US Vietnam veteran who said he dreamt Suu Kyi was about to be assassinated, penetrated the tight security around her compound and swam two kilometres across a lake to her house.

Her arrest ignited a furious response from the governments of Thailand, the Philippines, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Asian and European foreign ministers meeting in Hanoi in late May called for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, and the lifting of all restrictions on political parties. The ministers, attending an Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM), also rejected the junta’s claim that they were interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

The Nation, a Bangkok daily newspaper, meanwhile slammed the regime in its editorial pages for using the incident as a pretence for the removal of Suu Kyi from the political landscape, saying, ‘The political process [in Burma] will continue to be rigged and manipulated, which heavily favours the government and the military.’

‘Burma’s leaders are clearing the decks of political opponents before they announce the next round of sham political reforms,’ says David Mathieson, Burma researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. ‘The arrested represent a broad section of civil society…What they all have in common is a desire to see an end to the regime. The outcome of the elections is crucial to the regime’s plans to solidify its power and continue its political dominance.’

But despite local and international condemnation of the arbitrary arrests, the regime has continued to jail its opponents. Human Rights Watch estimates that Burma has 2100 such prisoners, more than double the number in 2007.

The Association Assisting Political Prisoners says Burma has 44 prisons and at least 50 labour camps, with many of the jails not having hospitals and at least 12 not even having a doctor. The regime also jails political prisoners in remote areas as a deliberate ploy to obstruct family members from visiting and delivering much needed food and medicine.

Aung Kyaw Oo has spent 14 of his 40 years behind bars. A member of a non-violent pro-democracy student union, he was arrested and charged with breaches of the Illegal Association Act and sentenced to 12 years in the notorious Insein Jail.

‘I was jailed for talking and writing about politics,’ he says. ‘In Burma, we have to hide what we do.’

For Aung Kyaw Oo, the worst part of his confinement was the first six months. ‘I wasn’t allowed any contact with the outside or my family. I was held in a cell with four others,’ he says. ‘We slept on the floor, had one blanket each, shared dirty drinking water, our toilet stank…I was allowed 10 minutes outside the cell each day and the cell light was switched on at night. They punched and kicked me. I bled from the ear. They hooded me so I couldn’t see them. They put me in iron shackles. All through the night people cried and screamed.’

With no mosquito nets, Aung Kyaw Oo also was infected with malaria. ‘They took me to the clinic. There were no beds, so I slept on the floor. They used the same needle on all the sick prisoners – about 20. I got very sick from this,’ he says. ‘I’m angry that they did this. I got sicker and sicker. I had poor food, I was malnourished, depressed, angry, sad and couldn’t see my family.’

Indeed, Aung Kyaw Oo says that the harsh sentence he was finally given actually came as a relief. ‘I could see my family. I was no longer in nowhere land.’

Aung Kyaw Oo now works on the Thai-Burma border for the Association Assisting Political Prisoners. ‘We are all former political prisoners. We can’t forget those we left behind or those still being locked away’, he says. ‘We have to fight for them.’

He says he struggles to stop himself from crying as he thinks of the years he lost in jail, and that he still carries the mental and physical scars of his detention. But he remains defiant. ‘My health is not good, my blood is ruined. I have trouble walking and have muscle pain all the time. I’m poor, but I have my beliefs and hopes. I have no regrets; it’s what we have to do.’

Mathieson says the regime is targeting anyone who has spoken out against it, using an archaic Penal Code that outlaws free expression, peaceful demonstration and the forming of organisations. ‘The jail sentences are outrageous by any measures. Someone marching or calling for better living standards is not a criminal and anyone who supports these activities is not a criminal,’ he says. ‘All the legal charges against them are brutally banal and the [Burmese] laws are sufficiently vague for them to turn almost any act of freedom into a criminal activity.’

Monk’s Protest

In August and September 2007, Burmese activists took to the streets to protest at the removal of fuel and natural gas subsidies and the knock-on effect this had on other commodities, increasing prices by as much as 500 per cent. Encouraged by their actions, more people took to the streets to voice dissent over the rising cost of food, poor healthcare, a failing education system and lack of freedom.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government-controlled newspaper, described the protests as a plot against the regime and declared, ‘Taking advantage of the increase in fuel prices, internal and external destructive elements have provoked the people since 15 August to ensure their three strategies meet with success.’

These strategies were, according to the paper, intended to ‘Disrupt the National Convention, to cause civil unrest similar to the ‘88’ disturbances and to commit various acts within the framework of law.’

The regime tried unsuccessfully to re-focus people’s attention through the state-run media on the ‘enemies within’ and away from economic mismanagement that has led to most Burmese struggling to earn a living. The UN Development Program has estimated, for example, that 70 per cent of household expenditure is on food in a country where the annual average salaries for teachers is about US$330.

Corruption is also rife – teachers sell exam paper questions, government officials sell application forms and hospitals sell sub-standard healthcare. The government spends 40 per cent of the national budget on its military and less than four percent on health.

By September 24 of that year, as many as 150,000 monks, activists and political groups had joined marches through the streets of Rangoon to protest over the conditions, while Burmese demonstrated their solidarity with the monks and protesters by joining in a countrywide demonstration. On the night of September 25, the authorities put a night-time curfew in place and secret police, militia and paramilitary thugs began arresting hundreds of demonstrators.

On September 27, armed security forces began raiding monasteries and detaining monks. Soldiers drove trucks into the crowds of protestors, killing three. Soldiers began indiscriminately firing at protestors. The regime ordered thousands of troops, police and militia to take control of the city streets and security forces began arresting and battering anyone they suspected of being involved in the protests. Opposition groups said thousands of people were detained and that even today, many still are.

Myat (not her real name) was one of those arrested. ‘They came for me at my home on the 10 October,’ she says. ‘I was taken to a detention centre and interrogated for five days before they sent me to Insein Jail.’

Myat, 19, was studying law at Rangoon University and was a youth member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Myat is thin, shy and hardly fits the ‘enemy of the state’ image bestowed on her by military intelligence. Over the next 15 days, Myat was shunted back and forth between the jail and detention centre.

‘I was terrified. Each time they said they’d release me, but they kept questioning me about who I worked for’, she says.

‘The detention centre was dirty… dirty food, dirty water, dirty floor and a dirty blanket…I could hear people crying all the time, at night the lights were broken. I was scared they would come and beat me. Other people were terrified of ghosts. It was bad place where bad things happened to people.’

Myat’s windowless cell was hot and cramped and she shared it with a sick seven-months-pregnant woman who was arrested for watching the protests from a teashop.

‘She was worried about her baby, she cried all the time. The guards told her to shut up,’ Myat recalls. ‘They came into the room and roughly massaged her belly. After that, her baby didn’t move again. I think it died. I felt so sad for her. She suffered a lot.’

The authorities confiscated Myat’s possessions, leaving her with only the clothes she was wearing when arrested. ‘They lied. They told my family I’d been released, but I was still in Insein Jail with four other women who had been arrested for watching the protests from a teashop,’ she says. ‘I’d been held for about a month before my aunt found out where I was. She brought me food and clothes. They intentionally moved me again, so my family wouldn’t know where I was.’

Myat says she was detained for two and half months, before eventually being released after signing a statement admitting her ‘crimes’. Once free, Myat says she avoided politics and was afraid to contact her friends. She worried about the strangers loitering outside her house and even anyone standing too close to her when she was talking. ‘I couldn’t take anymore. With the help of the underground movement I made my way to Thailand. I want to go back to Burma, all my family is there, but if I do, it will be dangerous for me. I don’t want to spend my life in jail.’

A Bloody Road Map to Democracy

The regime plans to hold its general election in 2010, in what it sees as the final strategic piece in its much-criticised ‘Seven Step Road Map to Democracy’. Political opponents, international observers and human rights groups view the elections as likely to be flawed and corrupt – an opportunity for the regime to seal its long-term political control over Burma by creating and using a custom-built civilian political party as its proxy.

The ‘Road Map’ was initially created by the regime as a means of diverting international criticism and attention away from its attacks on rural ethnic people and its city-based political opponents.

Reporting on Burma is difficult. It’s isolated, and a ban on international journalists makes it difficult to verify stories in time for deadlines. By the time footage is smuggled out, the story has often moved on to another hot spot.

In May 2003, eyewitness accounts and video footage smuggled out to the international media showed government-sponsored thugs attacking Suu Kyi’s entourage as she toured Depayin in the north of the country. Spooked by the thousands of people clogging the streets to support her, the regime ordered that her convoy be attacked. Suu Kyi was injured and arrested and as many as 70 of her supporters were killed. Hundreds more were seriously hurt.

The United States, European Union and Japan criticised the regime’s brutality. But by August, the regime had devised a tactic to divert attention from the massacre in Depayin and launched a clumsy campaign – the ‘Seven Step Road Map to Democracy’. And it worked – while Burma’s pro-democracy opposition groups were being battered, the international media put the Road Map on the agenda, failing to recognise its inconsistencies.

The regime’s step-by-step Road Map included a ‘disciplined democratic system’, reconvening the ‘National Convention’, the holding of a referendum, building a modern, developed and democratic nation, parliamentary elections and drafting a new constitution – music to the ears of an international community desperately in need of something new to say about Burma.

But one man who knows the inside story of the constitution’s drafting is exiled Burmese Member of Parliament, Khun Myint Tun, a man who was part of a delegation instructed by the regime to attend the National Convention to draft it.
In a small concrete house overlooking sun-scorched rice fields on the Thai-Burma border, Khun Myint Tun leans forward in his plastic chair, sips at his strong Burmese tea and explains how the Convention worked.

‘We were treated like prisoners’, he says. ‘We couldn’t leave our room without permission, couldn’t listen to the radio, our phone calls were listened to, our mail opened and I was followed by plain clothes police.’

Fed up with the violations to his freedom and the restrictive guidelines he was given to work to, he walked out. Now regarded as an enemy by the regime, Khun Myint Tun was subject to further harassment, and it was not long before he was arrested for possessing a US-published booklet on non-violence.

For five days and nights Khun Myint Tun was forced to sit hooded on a stool while Military Intelligence officers interrogated him. He was not allowed to sleep and the hood only came off at meals and toilet breaks. ‘I was jailed for seven years and three months. I was tortured, beaten and humiliated and kept in a dark room for 70 days and repeatedly tortured’, he said.

Khun Myint Tun served most of his long sentence in solitary confinement. After 14 years in the making and numerous suspensions, the regime finally declared they had a constitution the people could vote for in a national referendum, a crucial element in their ‘Road Map to Democracy.’

The Vote to Nowhere

The national referendum vote was scheduled for May 10, 2008. This gave the public one month and six days to read the constitution – if they could speak Burmese and English, lived in a city and could afford to buy it. According to Human Rights Watch, there were no indications the regime had plans to distribute the constitution outside the major cities, nor to release it in any of the other 135 languages spoken by an estimated 40 per cent of the population. In addition, the constitution effectively bars Suu Kyi from running for office through a specially drafted clause that excludes anybody married to a foreigner from elections.

To create a climate of fear and to stop the political opposition from speaking out against its Road Map, opponents were arrested under Law 5/96, which states that it is a criminal offence to criticise the Road Map, with offenders facing up to 20 years in prison. Political activists told Human Rights Watch researchers that it was impossible to make public comment, write articles, hand out leaflets, organize rallies, put up posters or wear political T-shirts without being arrested.

‘Burma’s political reform process, the so-called Road Map to democracy, is completely illegitimate and has no chance of bringing about a better society’, Mathieson says. ‘The Road Map shouldn’t be taken serious at all. It’s not democratic, it’s just more of the regime’s repression, but this time with a democratic veneer.’ Mathieson says the regime wants to keep power and is intent on maintaining control over peoples’ thoughts and actions. ‘They want to keep the country passive. Any democratic principle or democratic norm has been twisted to serve the needs of the military dictatorship. It’s about as sinister as you can get. They call it “disciplined democracy” and that’s about as Orwellian as you can get.’

The Cyclone

As people prepared to go the polls in early May 2008, Burma was devastated by natural disaster. Cyclone Nargis ripped through southern Burma, killing at least 140,000 people and leaving over two million homeless or injured. But that did not deter the generals from pressing ahead with their referendum.

Burma’s military regime ignored offers of help and aid for their destitute citizens from foreign governments and aid agencies. Foreign ships and trucks stocked with crucial aid lay off shore and at border checkpoints unable to get into Burma. The generals denied widespread access to the devastated Irrawaddy Delta for weeks after the cyclone struck. Decomposing bodies clogged waterways, bloated animal carcasses dotted the landscape and thousands of destitute people waited in vain for help to arrive. Human Rights Watch reported that many people died and suffered needlessly as the regime stonewalled all outside offers and attempts to help.

Mathieson, speaking to The Diplomat in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said, ‘The regime treated the cyclone as a national security problem instead of a natural disaster, demonstrating the shocking disregard in which they hold the welfare of their own people.’

Meanwhile, as the international aid industry struggled to deliver care to desperate cyclone victims, the regime pushed on with its constitutional referendum. After months of vote rigging and intimidation of voters, the government claimed 98 per cent of people turned out to vote and a staggering 92 per cent had voted for the new constitution.

Even those Burmese who tried to help cyclone victims were punished. On April 10, 2009, for example, the regime sentenced six people to prison terms ranging from two to four years for burying cyclone victims. Popular Burmese comedian Zarganar was sentenced to 35 years for helping cyclone victims without permission.

Living in Fear – Neighbourhood Watch

The regime rules Burma with an iron fist, using a variety of security forces, police special branch, militia and local authorities to spy on teahouses, hotels, guesthouses, markets, shops, private parties and gatherings of people. They loiter outside private homes, listen to conversations and meet with their networks of informers to identify potential targets to persecute.

To maintain pressure on citizens, the regime uses a household registration system to remind everyone they are under surveillance. Authorities have to be given a list of all house occupants, a copy of which is attached to the outside of the house. Local authorities have to be informed of all visitors, and it is not unusual for police or any of the other security groups to demand to enter homes, day or night, and check the occupants against the list.

Khin Mon runs a guesthouse on the coast. He says seeing people being arrested is harrowing and grinds down any thoughts of resistance.

‘It feels like you can’t do anything. I live in fear all the time. Plain-clothes OMAS (Office of Military Affairs and Security) come in all the time. They are not locals. They don’t have family here,’ he says. ‘Every day I have to take the guest registrations to their office. I also take it to the police, special branch, army and ya ya ka [local authorities]. If I have less names on the register than I have guests, it’s a fine with jail.’

Khin Mon, 33, says there is a constant feeling of being watched and listened to. ‘If strangers approach, we have to be prepared to change our topic of conversation right away. During the September protests, people were being arrested for listening to the news.’

Getting involved in politics or joining the NLD would be enough to get Khin Mon sacked and force him and his family to leave the area.

‘If they know you are a member of the NLD, they will try to force you to resign. They will stop your family from getting educated, promoted at work or buying supplies if you have a business,’ he says. ‘I fear sa ya pa [OMAS] the most. I can’t tell who they are and they’re everywhere. I can never trust strangers. Even our children are not allowed to talk freely. They grow up with this shadow hanging over them.’

Freedom of the Press

Press freedom is non-existent. In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Burma the second-worst country for media freedom, just ahead of North Korea. And in a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch fingered Burma as one of the ‘…most repressive countries on earth in terms of its restrictive press laws and its frequent practice of jailing journalists.’

Kyaw Kyaw and Hnin are working journalists in Burma who I spoke with in a Chiang Mai café on the banks of the Ping River. They have come to Thailand with a fistful of stories and photographs that would earn them a lengthy jail sentence if they tried to publish them in Burma.

Kyaw Kyaw says the daily reality for journalists is one of fear and frustration. ‘Journalists want to write stories, but we know we won’t be allowed to write the stories we want,’ he says. ‘We know if we write it, it won’t be published in Burma, we have to send it to the exiled media, and that often takes time.’

Kyaw Kyaw attended the September protests and filed his stories to the outside media. ‘Our editors told us if you go to the protests, it’s at your own risk. If they know, we’ll be sacked and jailed,’ he says.

Kyaw Kyaw and Hnin got close enough to the protest to photograph the carnage as the army battered unarmed civilians and monks. But by the time they were able to send their work to the exiled media, the story had moved on.

Hnin interrupts to explain that for journalists to get their work published they have to first submit it in triplicate to the Press Scrutiny Registration Division for approval. The process can take up to three weeks, rendering news stories useless. Articles criticising the regime or their policies are censored and put their authors at risk jail of jail.

‘I get a lot of news but it can’t be published inside,’ says Hnin. ‘Everything we write is screened and censored, local journalists send stories out to the exiled media. It then comes back inside via the BBC, DVB or VOA. Government journalists are like puppets – they print what they’re told to. People have no trust in the government media.’

Kyaw Kyaw says journalists covering stories in Burma have to take risks. ‘I feel scared when I cover stories or demonstrations,’ he says. ‘If they find my notebooks, or I’m helping the outside media, I will be jailed under penal code 71 and 72. I’ll get two years.’

Both Kyaw Kyaw and Hnin say they worry about their future, but want to remain in Burma. ‘When we’re outside the country, all we hear is an echo of the real situation, it’s hard to know what’s real,’ Hnin explains. ‘Working inside we know our own sound, our own song, we know what the distortions of sound are and what they mean. It’s our story, we should be there to report it.’

The World Health Organization ranks Burma’s health system as the second worst of 192 countries, and it has the highest number of child soldiers in the world. It’s the second largest producer of opium and the biggest producer of amphetamines.

Corruption is also rife, with Transparency International ranking it just ahead of Bangladesh and Chad. A US Congressional report said that transnational organised crime flourish in Burma and that it ‘…is highly profitable, reportedly generating roughly several billion dollars each year’. The report said the trafficking of contraband included drugs, humans, guns, wildlife, gems and timber.

Kyaw Kyaw is worried about the effect of having to always censor his own stories. ‘The government has turned us into liars. They’ve created a culture of lies. Journalists have to lie, I can’t tell the truth, teachers can’t teach the truth, we can only talk truly and freely with people we know and trust.’

Hnin agrees and says her life is full of fear and frustration as she tries to grapple with the complexities of being a journalist in a country where telling the truth is rewarded with a lengthy jail sentence – 61 media workers are currently serving time in Burmese jails.

‘I want to write stories, only stories, but I have to be afraid of strangers. I’ve become fearful. I feel fear. When I interview people, I’m scared. I worry they might inform on me. I want to use my training in my country, but it’s so hard. I never thought it would be so painful. Every story that’s hard news I have to ignore.’

Forced Displacement

While the international media and politicians focus on what is happening in Rangoon, the Burmese army is said to be frequently attacking and killing ethnic villagers and using civilians as forced labour.

A third of the Burmese army’s forces are based in Eastern Burma – 249 infantry and light infantry battalions, totalling about 37,350 soldiers. These forces are massed against, at most, 5000 armed Karen. At the time of writing, 1300 government troops were attacking the Ler Per Her displacement camp, situated on the Burmese side of the River Moei.

Thai authorities say 3500 Karen villagers living at the camp and in the surrounding area have fled to safety in Thailand. The Burmese army shelled the fleeing villagers, some of the mortar rounds falling on the Thai side of the river. Ler Per Her is about 100 kilometres north of Mae Sot and from the nearest hospital capable of dealing with gunshot and shrapnel wounds.

This is not the first time the Burmese army has attacked Ler Per Her. Soldiers have burnt down the village four times in ten years. The last attack, in 2002, lasted three days. Before soldiers left the area they booby-trapped and landmined walkways, waterholes, rice stores, schoolyards and homes, making the old village uninhabitable.

The regime uses its soldiers to force hundreds of thousands of Karen villagers from their homes in an attempt to bring them and their land under its control. The regime argues that it is because of the conflict with the Karen National Liberation Army that so many civilians are displaced. But Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National University Defence and Strategic Studies Centre dismisses such an argument.

‘These attacks are against civilians, not Karen soldiers’, Bell says. ‘The Burmese military have a total disregard for international law. The Karen army is a fraction the size of the Burmese army and can offer little in the way of resistance. Most of its work is spent moving people out of harm’s way.’

The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), in its latest report, Displacement and International Law In Eastern Burma, estimates ‘…that more than 3200 settlements were destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in Eastern Burma between 1996 and 2007.’

Between 2006 and 2007, the Burmese army burnt down villages, laid landmines and drove more than 76,000 villagers from their homes into jungle hideouts. Many more made the arduous journey to makeshift camps on the edges of the Thai-Burma border.

Avoiding soldiers, landmines and crossing rain-swollen rivers, hundreds walked for months at night during the monsoonal rains to get to Ei Tu Hta camp on the Burmese side of the Salween River. Children and adults were sick with malaria, diarrhoea, fever and dysentery.

The journey is etched on Naw Win Shwe’s face. Ravaged with fear and grief, she draws two of her three children closer as she talks. We’re sitting in a bamboo hut, rain beating down on the thatched leaf roof.

‘I last saw my husband on the morning of the 13th April [2006]’, she says. ‘When he was on his way home from our rice fields, he was taken by the Burmese army as a porter. They used him for month to carry their supplies.’ Naw Win pauses as her two children snuggle closer to her. ‘They didn’t kill him. The soldiers cut out both his eyes and nose. They left him in the jungle.’

Her husband, Maung Than Lwin, died alone. When villagers found him, his decomposing corpse was photographed and given a quick burial.

‘We couldn’t bury him according to our beliefs – he should be buried in our land. I dare not complain to the Burmese army. If I do I will be killed’, she says biting her lip in an effort to hold back tears. ‘If I think about my life I will be sad. I have to encourage myself. I use my children to be happy.’

Finally breaking down, she says: ‘I miss my husband. When does it stop hurting? I will not forget our time together. It will stay with me until I die.’

The Burmese army uses a ‘four cuts’ offensive against the Karen. The aim is to stop community support, food, money, information and recruitment to the Karen resistance. Whole communities are designated ‘black zones’ and relocated. Villagers caught in ‘black zones’ are shot on sight and crops, homes and animals are destroyed.

In 2002, I interviewed survivors of a Burmese army attack that left 12 Karen villagers dead, seven of them children. One of the survivors, Kho Noc, lost three of his five children and his eight-months-pregnant wife, Naw Dalare, in the Burmese army night-time attack on their village. Kho Noc said his surviving two children dream about their mother all the time. ‘They really miss her. I miss her. I’m so lonely without her’, he says.

His daughter Kar Kur was wounded in the attack by a bullet in her arm and her brother, Dik Klee, carried horrendous scarring that welded his upper arm to his body from an accident with a boiling pot of rice.

After I published the story, I received an offer of help to pay for an operation to fix Dik Klee’s arm from the owners, staff and customers of the Bronte Café in Sydney. Dik Klee underwent successful surgery in Mae Sot. The last I saw of Dik Klee, he was gleefully chasing a new soccer ball. I didn’t see or hear from Dik Klee again, but often wondered how he, Kar Kur and Kho Noc were coping.

Earlier this year, I found out. I received a leaflet from Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group who work deep inside Burma documenting human rights abuses and deliver aid to displaced people. Inside the leaflet was an item about the killing of two Karen on Christmas Day 2007. The names and accompanying photographs of two partly burnt corpses said it was Dik Klee and his uncle, Saw No Maw, who had been caught and tortured by the Burmese army. Dik Klee had had his tendons in his legs and arms severed, he had been disembowelled and his throat had been cut. He was 13. His small body was still recognisable despite the burning.

Dismayed at the torture and senseless killing, I tried to understand how men could do this to a young boy. I sought out a Burmese army defector, an officer, to see if he could shed some light on the mentality behind the killings.

We met in secluded safe house on the edge of the Thai-Burma border. The ex-officer was neat, fit and had the muscles of someone who still worked at keeping them firm. Maung Aye (not his real name) had been a Burmese army officer for 25 years, 10 as a trainer, before defecting to Thailand. He explained the rationale behind what the soldiers did to Dik Klee and Naw Win’s husband.

‘We indoctrinate our troops – we give them a reason to fight the ethnic people,’ he said. ‘We tell them we’re fighting to stop the country from disintegrating. The Karen is the enemy. We instil in them fear and hatred. We tell them if a young Karen grows up he will become a soldier and kill you, better to do it now to him.’

Maung Aye, like most military men I have interviewed, talked about war deaths in a matter-of-fact voice, even managing to sound reasonable.

‘Our strategy is to destroy the villages and force-relocate them. Put simply, if you drain the lake, the fish will die. By dislocating villagers, it disrupts the guerrillas’ capacity to fight, it ties up all their resources trying to get food, medicine and shelter to the thousands of displaced villagers. This is systematic. Some villagers resist – we do some killing to sap their morale and to cow them into submission.’

Maung Aye’s comments reveal a simple strategy – displace a million people, force them into jungle hideouts without food sources, education and medical care and then let the opposition eat up their meagre resources trying to keep them alive. Displacement is always regarded as the by-product of armed conflict between the KNLA and the Burmese army, but as Maung Aye explained, it is actually the planned-for result.

And it works. Most international NGOs will not deliver cross-border aid and health care to displaced people, saying they can’t as it is does not fit their criteria or mandate.

Maung Aye also says there are some troops who he describes as ‘no-brain soldiers’ who are only too happy to rape, plunder and kill. ‘Commanders have to meet their objectives and if they don’t they know they’ll be punished by their superiors. So they legitimise this behaviour and will never discipline soldiers for abuses.’

Maung Aye reminds me that it is not just the Burmese army who operate like this. ‘We copied the US. Remember Mai Lai? What about Iraq and Afghanistan? You think what happened there is by accident?’
In early June of this year, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School launched their report Crimes in Burma at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
Writing in the report, Justice Richard J Goldstone, the first prosecutor at both the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and Patricia M Wald, former Judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, petitioned the UN Security Council to act on Burma.

‘We call on the UN Security Council urgently to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. The world cannot wait while the military regime continues its atrocities against the people of Burma’, they wrote.

Yet Khun Myint Tun says he is past being grateful for kind words for his and his country’s plight. Last year, as an exiled Burmese Member of Parliament, he travelled the world to lobby for action to be taken against the regime. Khun Myint Tun was feted at prestigious university dinners, gave talks to members of parliament and was invited to closed-door talks with influential people keen to discuss Burma.

‘I was treated very well, I heard lots of kind words – in some cases strong words – but unfortunately no action. I heard the same tired, diplomatic mantra from the UN: “There are promising signs from the regime”, “There is constructive engagement”, “We’re making progress”, “It’s a step-by-step process”. I’m sick of it. There’s no progress, we’ve gone backwards.’

Over the last 20 years, UN talks with the regime have achieved little. Suu Kyi is still under house arrest, political prisoners have more than doubled, 145,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand, there are more than a million displaced people inside Burma, ethnic children and adults continue to die at alarming rates from preventable diseases and two million Burmese have fled to neighbouring countries as economic refugees. By any measure, this is a dismal report card.

Khun Myint Tun agrees and says unless there is regime change Burma and its people will continue to suffer. He says action is necessary and far more international pressure needs to be put on the regime and its business cronies.

‘Some countries and some big non-government organisations want to end sanctions, but we say sanctions must continue. What we need is smart, targeted sanctions aimed at the military’s interests. And we want countries to make the sanctions work and not have loopholes where they still make profits from the regime.’


Divisions and a lack of coordination between members of the international community, including ASEAN, US, EU and UN members, has meant many of the sanctions introduced have been ineffective. South East Asian countries in particular are willing to trade in the vacuum left by countries imposing sanctions.

Following the bloody crackdown on protesters in September 2007, the European Union suggested sanctions targeting gems, timber, financial transactions, banking, banning new investment, and hitting the assets of the regime’s business partners. A global arms embargo was also called for.

But Khun Myint Tun says the EU sanctions came up short. ‘They could only agree on a ban on investing and importing gems, minerals and timber’, he says. ‘The United States has strong sanctions, but at the same time their oil giant, Chevron, is making billions of dollars in revenue for the regime. Other countries in South East Asia are sucking out the teak, hardwoods, natural gas, gemstones and oil from Burma. We need an immediate arms embargo that would hurt the regime.’

Mathieson agrees and says an arms embargo would hurt the regime. ‘The UN Security Council needs to put it on its agenda and get all [UN] members states to agree to it. Unfortunately, the two biggest arms suppliers to Burma are Security Council heavyweights Russia and China, and getting it past them is highly unlikely’, he says.

In 2007, China and Russia blocked a resolution by the US and Great Britain to make the Burmese regime stop its persecution of its people, and Mathieson says countries such as France, South Korea, Thailand, China and India are still investing in Burma, undercutting the effectiveness of any sanctions.

‘Targeted financial sanctions, if done properly, also have a chance of working because [they] will hurt the top 200 military personnel and their business cronies.’

While most of the free world waits for the members of the UN Security Council to find the unity, the resolve and the means to force regime change in Burma, the jailing of political prisoners goes on, as does the destruction of ethnic villages and the killing of ethnic people.

‘In Jail I Learnt I Had No Future…’

In a small wooden house inside a tree-lined compound in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, a group of men and women tap away at computer keyboards, talk on cell phones and show guests around a reconstructed prison cell. The men and women work for the Association Assisting Political Prisoners (AAPP) and all are former prisoners. Their sentences range from five years for attending a student demonstration to 14 years for writing leaflets.

One Burmese man, Bo Kyi, has made it his life’s work to ensure these prisoners will not be forgotten. A founding member and now secretary of AAPP, Bo Kyi was jailed three times for a total of seven years and three months. Jailed for the first time in 1990 for leading a demonstration for the release of political prisoners, Bo Kyi says: ‘I was sentenced to three years hard labour. I was interrogated and tortured for 36 hours. I was given no food or water and was kept handcuff and blindfolded.’

Bo Kyi was denied access to his family, who he says they did not know what had happened to him. ‘I was put in a small cell’, he says. ‘I could see blood spots and many names, including those of my friends on the walls. I was not allowed to shower for nine days.’

But despite the torture and beatings, Bo Kyi says he was determined to stay positive. ‘I wanted to study. I had an English dictionary smuggled in. I ate the pages as I learnt them. I also learnt I had no future. [Jail] taught me to live in the present otherwise I would have gone crazy thinking about the future.’

In spite of his experiences, Bo Kyi says he is not out for revenge. ‘Those who tortured me are also victims of the system. Sooner or later Burma will change. The people want change, but in the meantime people will have to speak out’, he says. ‘International NGOs working inside Burma have been silenced, but they need to speak out. We can’t let our brothers and sisters rot in jail because they had the courage to protest for change.’

Jailed for 21 Years for Typing a Letter

Bo Kyi introduces me to Lae Lae, who works for migrant students on the Thai-Burma border. She was jailed for four years from 1998 to 2002.

‘I was sentenced to 21 years for typing a letter that was anti-government. I didn’t write it, I just typed it’, Lae Lae says.

Lae Lae worked for an export company in downtown Rangoon when plain-clothes Military Intelligence officers came for her. ‘They took me like a criminal. I was blindfolded, I stumbled, bumped into desks, the door, couldn’t see anything.’ As with most political arrests, Lae Lae’s parents were not informed. ‘My family didn’t know where I’d been taken or where I was for eight months.’

She was put in a large room without a guard, and a radio spewed government propaganda in the background. ‘I felt anxious and alone’, she says. ‘I didn’t know what would happen to me. I knew my five friends had been arrested. I walked up and down to calm my nerves.’

Lae Lae says she was not beaten, but that she also was not allowed food or water, or to sit down, and was constantly questioned about her contacts and who wrote the letter. ‘I had not slept for three days. I was interrogated by men and guarded by women. They scolded and berated me. They insulted Suu Kyi all the time, saying she worked against the country and she was the enemy.’

When Lae Lae admitted she had typed the letter, she was allowed to sit and sleep. ‘They knew who had typed the letter. My friends had no choice but to inform on me. How can I be angry with them? It’s not possible to keep quiet when you are being beaten.’

Lae Lae was interrogated for another two weeks before being transferred to Insein Jail, Mandalay Jail and finally to Swebo Jail, 680 kilometres from her family in Rangoon. ‘My family was worried. Nobody told them anything. My friends eventually got word out for me to them.’

In Swebo Jail, Lae Lae says political prisoners were separated from the rest of the jail population. ‘We were forbidden to talk to them. Our cell was a six-foot square. We were allowed a few cupfuls of water to bathe each day. Food was rotten, dirty rice crawling with bugs and dirt… When the International Committee of the Red Cross visited, the food was good, but as soon as they left it was more of the same rotten rice.’

Lae Lae says the isolation and the constant jail noises almost drove her crazy. ‘I had no-one to talk to. I meditated a lot. At night I was scared the patrolling guards would come and rape me. When I think about my time in jail, I hate the generals, I hate the military. I would like them to spend a month in Swebo.’

She says she was lucky she was given early release in 2002 after signing a confession over her crimes and a statement that she was finished with politics. ‘I was young. Before jail, I was confident, scared of nothing. But I got depressed. Old friends kept away, they were scared to be seen with me. The authorities warned my family I would be sent back to finish my remaining 17 years and given a new sentence if I got involved in politics again.’

Lae Lae ignored the warning and was soon involved in politics, but this time she left the country to do so. ‘We always protested peacefully, but every time the generals crack down on us brutally. They have killed thousands of young Burmese who just want the freedom to have a better life. All Burmese people live in fear.’

They Stripped Away Our Humanity…

Kyi Kyi Khin covers stories about the lives of migrant workers and refugees in her work as a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma. She’s full of energy and laughter despite her harsh treatment in jail.

‘I was a member of the All Burma Students Federation Union. We wrote a newsletter. I also worked as an election campaigner for the NLD in the 1990 election. I think this was the real reason for my arrest. They wanted political campaigners out of the way’, she says.

Kyi Kyi (pronounced Gee Gee) says it is easy for security agencies to know what political activists are up to. ‘We had to submit all our travel arrangements and our planned activities to the local authorities’, she says. ‘They know everything about us.’

Kyi Kyi, now 43, was arrested and taken to Military Intelligence 4 in Bassein Division in the Irrawaddy District. ‘I was locked in a dark room for 28 days. I couldn’t tell when it was night or day’, she says. ‘The door had a spy hole. The floor was concrete. I had a bed base, a pot to shit and pee in. People cried all the time. Water was only given at mealtimes. People cried for water all the time.’

She says she felt the process was aimed at humiliating political prisoners. ‘I was alone in one of five rooms facing another five rooms. You were only allowed to shit in the morning at 6am. The smell was disgusting.’

Kyi Kyi says she was not beaten, but that the mental torture was constant. ‘I was interrogated five times in 28 days, I had to stay on my feet all night. It was difficult. It was November, very cold, I got sick with fever. They gave me a chair; I couldn’t sit down during the interrogations. I had to lean on the wall.’

She says she was not charged with any crime at this stage. ‘They took it in turns to interrogate me, then they would start again using the information I had given them to re-interrogate me. This went on and on.’

‘I wasn’t allowed to bathe for 28 days. In the dark I was always surrounded by noise’, she says. ‘You can’t see, you can only guess what’s going on. Next to my cell a 16-year-old boy sobbed. On the other side a 60-year-old man continually cried for water. The young boy cried after his interrogation’.

Kyi Kyi responded to their plight with the only weapon she had. ‘I tried to comfort them by shouting and singing student songs. I had to do something. We were being stripped of our humanity.

‘After 28 days I was transferred to jail. I was not charged. I was kept isolated, but at last I was given a shower. I smelt so bad. I had worn the same clothes for 28 days [and] they stank and had rotted on me. The shower felt so good.’

Before the MI would let Kyi Kyi be transferred, she had to sign a statement admitting her guilt. ‘I wasn’t allowed to read it, just sign it. I refused to sign it for two days. They kept ordering me to sign it and said if I did they would let me have light. I was frustrated and angry, I knew I had to sign. I couldn’t stay in the dark. I craved daylight.’

She was taken to a special court in the jail were she was charged under the Illegal Publications Act and given two years in prison.

‘Jail was always bad – the food was bad, the rice was never cooked well and it was not always eatable’, she says. ‘Before I was charged I was kept separated from the prison population. After I was charged we all mixed together. We learnt from each other. Thieves taught us how they operated and we talked politics with them.’

In 1992, after two years, Kyi Kyi was released. She stayed in Bassein and from 1992 to 1995 worked with other political prisoners, bribing guards to let them take in food and medicine to the jails. She then moved to Rangoon and began working for a tour company as a camera operator on travel documentaries.

‘My boyfriend was with an ethnic ceasefire group. In 1996, we moved to the ceasefire area’, she says. ‘We arranged a special meeting between ceasefire groups and Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting was to be at my wedding.’

Military Intelligence found out about the meeting and tried to arrest Kyi Kyi and her fiancé. ‘We moved to Kareeni State. That’s when I started to work with the exiled media groups. I would send stories to them. I didn’t stop working. I had a baby and when he was one month old I returned to Bassein. I was re-arrested on suspicion because I had been seen with local NLD people. They kept me in jail for 10 days with the baby. My parents came and took my son from me.’

Kyi Kyi says she told the secret police she was not involved in politics. ‘Luckily, it was before computer link-ups, otherwise my earlier arrest would have been the finish. I had to sign a paper to say I could not travel anywhere overnight or have visitors to my home. MI always watched us after this.’

When the regime arrested their prime minister and Military Intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, Kyi Kyi took advantage of the confusion during the dismantling of the MI infrastructure to leave for Thailand.

‘I told no-one I was leaving. My father was worried – he didn’t know where I was so he travelled to Thailand to look for me. On his return he was arrested and sentenced to eight years for communicating with illegal political groups. My father is still in Insein Jail. He’s now 70, has high blood pressure and his health is failing.’

Kyi Kyi’s family is not allowed to visit her father. ‘My father is not a politician, but he was made to suffer because he helped and supported me. In Burma, if one person is in involved in politics, the whole family will suffer. The family, the children are denied promotions or education and will lose their jobs. People lose their careers.’

But Kyi Kyi says prison also taught her a lot about herself and maintaining her dignity even when it seems hopeless. ‘I followed my beliefs and kept my values. Political prisoners even got respect from guards and other prisoners because of our resolve. MI promised us businesses and homes in Rangoon if we stopped what we were doing when they realised they couldn’t change us. Even they had some grudging respect for us.’

‘I Was on Death Row…’

Thiha Yarzaw had family connections in the military, but it did not help him when the Military Intelligence came.

‘My father was an army colonel and my uncle was an officer in the navy. I was a student leader in 1988 the first time I was arrested’, he says. ‘On the 16th of March we went to White Bridge to protest the killing of a student by police. The police wanted to blame students for his death. We wanted the government to tell the truth.’

The students’ protest was cut short when special police turned up and began shooting. ‘They shot, clubbed students, drowned others and women were raped. Students responded with stones. I escaped, but they caught me the next day’, Thiha says.

Thiha was taken with about 300 others to Insein Jail. They kept him there with the other student leaders for three months. After his release, Thiha got married and spent his time travelling between Thailand and Burma, delivering messages between the political opposition inside and those in exile. When he was arrested again, his daughter was three months old.

‘They found documents on me about forming a new government’, he says. ‘On March 7, 1991, I was given a death sentence for high treason. I was put on death row with bombers, murderers, rapists and other political prisoners.’

In jail, Thiha saw prisoners signing confessions after being beaten. ‘Many were falsely accused. Some are still in jail, brain damaged’, he says. ‘I was kicked like a ball from place to place. I was beaten, kept in dark cells, interrogated. I could hear people screaming in the next room. They broke my will. They said I would be killed on the spot and my family killed.’

Thiha by now did not know what noises were real or who he could trust. ‘I was alone, I was afraid, I was angry, I couldn’t do anything. They wanted my connections. I could put many people at risk. I kept silent about the real stuff. I had had enough. After the torture all I wanted to do was go to jail.’

While on death row, Thiha was allowed family visits and was told his father was forced to resign from the army. ‘My uncle in the navy was also forced to resign. It puts a great strain on your family when you are a political prisoner. The military punishes them. My wife visited me for about three years. She died in 1997 and her family raised my daughter.’

In 1993, Thiha’s sentence was reduced from the death penalty to 20 years and he was moved from prison to prison.

‘The worse was Taungoo’, he says. ‘It was lawless – it was worse than Insein. Three or four of us in a small, eight-foot by eleven-foot cell, never enough water to keep clean and just a bowl to shit in.’

As part of a government amnesty, Thiha’s sentence was further reduced by 10 years. But his joy was short-lived. ‘One month later they called me in and told me I was back on 20 years. It was a phone order from the National Intelligence Bureau. I refused to accept it and went on a hunger strike. On May 13, 1998, I was transferred to Kalore Prison on the Indian border.’

‘I felt bad. I heard my father had died, my sister’s business was ruined because of me – my family were ruined because of me’, Thiha says. ‘Without their visits the years became longer. I saw lives ruined, wives coming to see their husbands with divorce papers to be signed. This was a depressing time for me.’

In 2008, Thiha was released as part of another amnesty, this time for good. He met with his daughter for the first time since he had cradled her at three months.

‘I hate them, they’re beyond any law. I never had a chance to hold my daughter like a father. I used to imagine her, what she was like, what she would think of me. I spent 17 years, six months and 16 days in jail for expressing my political views. How can I not hate them?’