'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.

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.

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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.’

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