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The price of defiance

A former political prisoner demonstrates regulation positions he was forced to adopt in prison. Some are equivalent to torture.

Photo: Nic Dunlop / Panos Pictures

Bo Kyi is in debt; a debt of honour to which his working life is now devoted. Toward the end of our conversation, he tells me about it.

‘I salute those democracy activists who are in prison, those who still continue inside Burma. It is incredible, they know they will be arrested, they know they will be tortured, but they still carry on. It means we have no other way, we have to support them. If you have respect for democracy or human rights.’

That sense of compulsion has got to be what drives political activists in a country where mere disagreement with the authorities is viewed as treason. Activists like Min Ko Naing, the chair of the banned All Burma Federation of Student Unions, who spent nearly 16 years in solitary confinement. This meant sleeping on concrete floors with no bedding and receiving starvation rations (mainly gluey rice). Excrement piles up in a corner on the cell floor or, if the prisoner is lucky, in a small pot. Maggots abound. Punishment iron shackles must be worn. These weigh nearly six kilos and have a bar that keeps the feet permanently astride.

It was from such conditions that Min Ko Naing refused an offer made by a US State Department official to relocate to America. Upon his release he took up political activity again, for which further incarceration followed. In another brief period on the outside (release can scarcely be called freedom in Burma), he became one of the guiding spirits of the demonstrations in August 2007. He is back behind bars.

This is the kind of debt Bo Kyi talks about. We meet in the dusty and, to all appearances, sleepy border town of Mae Sot in Thailand, where Bo Kyi and other former Burmese political prisoners started the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). In reality Mae Sot swirls with the activity of the myriad exiled Burmese groups who are trying to get help to communities across the border and are constantly scrabbling together resources for the bedraggled refugees who arrive in Thailand. It is also a hub of Burmese politicians in exile and consequently there are tales of infiltration and worse by agents of the regime.

Bo Kyi is soft-spoken, composed, diligent in putting down markers of date and place, careful that the right details are provided – it’s a manner, instantly recognizable by journalists, common to many people who have suffered the worst that human depravity can throw at them. It could be mistaken for emotional numbness, but how else to recount horror without reliving it?

Bo Kyi spent two spells in prison totalling seven years and three months, beginning in March 1990, for student union activity, organizing demonstrations and refusing to become an informer for Military Intelligence (MI).

‘As soon as I was arrested I was taken to the interrogation centre. During the interrogation, for the first 36 hours I was not allowed to eat or drink. They asked questions. One group came in and asked questions very softly. Another group came, they asked questions with violent means – beating, kicking. They didn’t allow me to rest. For four days I was blindfolded and didn’t see daylight.’ Hooding is a common torture tool, depriving the prisoner of visual information as to what might be coming next.

‘After 36 hours they provided a very small cup of water in the morning, then in the evening another small cup. After four days I was very thirsty, but when I asked for water they said no. When I was allowed to go to the toilet, I drank water out of the lavatory. They created such situations intentionally – forcing me to drink for my survival. During those four days I was forced to stand. If I fell down they’d pull me like this [demonstrates being yanked up by the temples]. When, after eight days, I was told I would be sent to Insein prison, I was really happy, because I thought prison must be better than the interrogation centre.’

However, the harsh conditions of Burmese prisons easily qualify as torture. In a notorious incident, pigs were beaten outside Insein prison to drown out the cries of prisoners being beaten within.

In a notorious incident, pigs were beaten outside Insein prison to drown out the cries of prisoners being beaten within

‘I was placed in a tiny cell – 3 by 4 metres. I had to stay in it for 23 hours and 40 minutes, with only 20 minutes to go outside for bathing [water for which is limited to a few cupfuls].

‘One year later I was mixed with criminal prisoners, some of whom didn’t respect us political prisoners. It was part of the divide-and-rule policy of the prison authorities. Prison warders want to get higher so they can make more money for their own survival. I was under constant surveillance because prison authorities have to report to Military Intelligence.

‘During my second term the prison authorities accused me of trying to organize a demonstration in prison. Really I had no intention, but they accused me and asked me questions, beating all the time. I was beaten at least 200 times until I lost consciousness. Then I was shackled and forced to sleep on a concrete floor. For two weeks I was beaten every day; I could not sleep on my back, I had to sleep lying face down. Another time I was punished because they had found 500 kyats [currently worth 45 cents] and a piece of paper in my room. Money and writing paper are forbidden in prison.

‘Insein prison has a population of 10,000; its capacity is 4,000. Prisoners have to sleep on their sides, one behind another. The weather is hot – how can you sleep?’ Infested by mosquitoes, malaria stalks the wards. Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal and skin diseases are common.

‘There are no preventive measures or medicines. Because of complaints, prison doctors use disposable syringes for political prisoners. But we have to buy them ourselves, otherwise, no way. As for criminal prisoners, they just use the same syringe over and over. If you want to see the medic your family have to pay a bribe. If you want proper treatment, it will take another bribe. If your family is poor there is a 70-per-cent chance you will die in prison.’

Political prisoners - the basics

The law

Political prisoners are arrested without warrant and are sentenced in short mock trials without proper representation.

The State Peace and Development Council has formulated numerous vague laws as ‘security’ legislation in order to imprison those who oppose it.

• Section 5 (J) of the Emergency Provision Act – most frequently used against political prisoners for ‘affecting the morality of the general public or threatening the stability of the Union’. Sentence: 7 years.

• Article 17 (1) and 17(2) of the Unlawful Association Act – all organizations of a political nature are unlawful, except for the National League for Democracy. This act is used to punish people involved with such groups. Sentence: 2 to 5 years.

• Printers and Publishers Registration Law – 7 years for all who print, publish or distribute written materials without permission.

• Section 10 (A) of the State Protection Law – detention without charge or trial for up to 5 years; commonly used to extend sentences of political prisoners. Section 10 (B) of this law is responsible for Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued house arrest.

Estimates of numbers

• 1,864 political prisoners in Burma in January 2008. An underestimate, as it doesn’t include all those arrested since the September 2007 crackdown.

• Over 10,000 former political prisoners.

• Unknown numbers of people held for short periods of interrogation (torture) – a tactic to discourage political activity.

• At least 127 deaths of political prisoners in prison or shortly after release.

*Sources*: AAPP website; AAPP, The Darkness We See, Mae Sot, December 2005.

*General disease*

When political prisoners die in prison, they are often buried or cremated without informing families, autopsies are often not performed or falsely written up. Funerals of political prisoners are monitored by Military Intelligence. When Aung Hlaing Win died during interrogation, his family was informed it was a heart attack. His body showed signs of extensive torture. The family released a statement saying: ‘Ko Aung Hlaing Win passed away unexpectedly, or because of an unknown reason.’ The authorities stepped in to force them to change it to: ‘Ko Aung Hlaing Win passed away because of general disease.’1

The general disease is the system itself. And it is getting worse. In 2006 the authorities clamped down further on the quantity of food prisoners could receive from their relatives while simultaneously slashing the food budget for prisons.2 The website of the Myanmar Correctional Department meanwhile conveys a vision of obedient prisoners working for their self-improvement. It claims prisons are open to inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Amnesty International. A quick call to Amnesty reveals that the organization is barred from visiting; the ICRC suspended visits at the end of 2005 after refusing to be accompanied by members of government agencies.

Back to reality. Bo Kyi introduces me to Aung Kyaw Oo, another former student unionist who served 14 years. Upon his release in 2005 he began working to support the families of political prisoners, until things got too hot and he fled, leaving behind his family, and arrived in Mae Sot on 6 August 2007. I am struck by the hungry eyes that dominate the face of this slight, intense man. He speaks in a near-whisper. He explains how an argument over his dinner ration led to him being summoned before a jailor. The jailor commanded him to assume one of the required submissive positions. Aung Kyaw Oo’s refusal resulted in ‘punches, beating, kicking. And then he put me in iron shackles with a hood. I couldn’t see anything, so he beat and kicked me a lot. Then they took me to sit on the sand in the sun. Next they put me with the death-sentence criminal prisoners – a 3-by-4-metre cell, with a prisoner who was always running, shouting, kicking and punching the wall, really angry. This was mental torture. I had to stay with him for six months.’

The AAPP does the usual things that groups supporting political prisoners do – documenting abuses with names, places, dates; monitoring prison conditions; lobbying international bodies to intercede when lives are in danger; publicizing details of abuse; supporting former political prisoners. But it also reaches out across the border to prisoners and their families, providing food and medicine.

‘How on earth do you manage to do this?’ I ask Bo Kyi.

At this point our conversation goes ‘off the record’. Bo Kyi is keen I write nothing that might endanger the networks his organization has built within Burma. Suffice it to say that such activities involve a combination of building family contacts and utilizing the sympathies of some prison guards and the corruption of some others.

From top: Bo Kyi, Aung Kyaw Oo, Lae Lae Nwe.

*Broken connection*

I switch off my machine, say my goodbyes and hop onto the passenger seat of AAPP member Lae Lae Nwe’s scooter. She has offered to take me to interview some monks and act as interpreter. On the way she reveals she had also been imprisoned and offers to tell her story at her home.

Home for Lae Lae is also home for some 50 migrant children and young people whom she looks after. The kids play with lusty squeals, the teenagers settling for the more sedate options of TV or study. Amid the din, she tells her story, quiet and straight.

‘One day in 1998 my best friend Zin Mar Aung – I had known her since kindergarten – asked me to type an anti-government letter. I was working for a computer operator, so I typed the letter and my friends and I distributed it around Rangoon University and other colleges. Unfortunately, some of my friends were arrested by Military Intelligence, including Zin Mar Aung. She was tortured, so she gave my name when asked who had typed the letter.

‘One of my friends informed me of Zin Mar Aung’s arrest and told me to run away from home. But it was difficult to do so. I was 22, I had no experience of politics and I hadn’t told my parents about the letter. On 25 September 1998 the MI arrested me at my company. They didn’t inform my parents, but my colleagues told them. I stayed at the interrogation centre for two weeks. I was very lucky. They follow your background. My father was in the navy and some of my relatives were from military backgrounds.’

Lae Lae kept denying any knowledge of the contents of the letter, while being forced to stand without food or water. Eventually she was moved to Insein prison and sentenced to 21 years; Zin Mar Aung (who remains in prison) received 28 years. After six months she was shunted to Mandalay prison and then on to Shwe Bo. ‘When I arrived there I told the prison officials: “I haven’t met with my parents yet, so please inform them [I’m here].” But they didn’t. My cellmate told her mother to inform my parents. So eventually we could meet.

‘I was released after four years, under Section 401(1) – I had to sign a paper agreement between the MI and myself that if I was involved in any political activities, I would be sentenced again for the remainder of my term, plus earning a new sentence.

‘All of my friends were former political prisoners, so they would always visit my home and we’d discuss the current situation. Sometimes we’d chat at the teashop. One informer was always watching me. I didn’t have freedom. At that time there was a signature campaign for the release of Min Ko Naing. The local authorities warned my mother that I shouldn’t be involved in any political activities. Because she needs to protect me, my mother had good relations with them. My father told me: “If you are arrested again, I cannot meet you in prison.” My father is retired and doesn’t have much of an income. So I left Burma in 2006.

‘Recently, an activist came here (from Burma) and joined a training session about community organizing. It was close to Christmas, so I wanted to send a present to my university friends. When the activist arrived back in Rangoon he gave them the presents. Unfortunately, he was arrested by the MI very recently. He was under cruel torture, so he told them about my presents. Consequently my university friends were arrested again because of my presents. Fortunately they have been released. Now my parents are afraid of me. Whenever I phone them, they hang up.’

  1. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Eight Seconds of Silence: The Death of Democracy Activists Behind Bars (AAPP, Mae Sot, May 2006).
  2. Amnesty International Myanmar Country Report 2007. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) Check out the rosy view of the Correctional Department at myanmar.gov.mm/ministry/home/PrisonsMain.htm

Photo: Dean Chapman / Panos Pictures

New Internationalist issue 411 magazine cover This article is from the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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