Hundreds of political prisoners are held in jails in Myanmar for “crimes” such as talking to Western journalists and promoting democracy. For a long time the International Red Cross was not allowed to visit them and check out their living conditions. At times—especially after crackdowns after major protests—thousands of political prisoners are held.

Under the military junta, which ceded power in March 2011, the number of political prisoners was estimated to be as high as 2,500. Hundreds of those have since been released under Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government and in response, most sanctions by the United States, Europe and Australia were suspended to allow the resumption of investment and development aid. Activists say that several measures are regularly applied to make politically motivated arrests, most notably an article of the Unlawful Associations Act that permits authorities to detain people with no formal charge or semblance of due process.

In 2008, human rights groups said more than 1,800 political detainees were held in about 20 prisons and labor camps in Myanmar. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese rights group based in Thailand, has documented "endemic" torture in them. Countless more people have disappeared altogether or been locked up for shorter stints. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Human rights groups say their estimate of 2,200 political detainees in Myanmar is probably conservative, because many in rural areas go uncounted. Periodically the government declares an amnesty, although criminals are the main beneficiaries. In 2008, it released 9,000 people; eight were political activists.” [Source: Washington Post , August 03, 2008; Los Angeles Times, December 05, 2010]

One man found with a cassette with a song “The Spirit of the Fighting Peacock” , a reference to the symbol of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party was sentenced to seven years in prison and endured “more than four and half years at the central prison before being transferred to another prison in Mandalay. In October 2009, four women were arrested after being accused of offering Buddhist monks alms that included religious literature. The women used to hold prayer services at Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda for Aung San Suu Kyi's release. They were sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour.

Laws, Lack of Justice and Punishments for Political Prisoners in Myanmar

The 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for instigating "disturbances to the detriment of law and order, peace and tranquility" has been used to arrest many political prisoners. Others have been put away for decades for holding illegal foreign currency or violating the Electronic Act, which prohibits sending information, photos or video damaging to the regime abroad via the Internet. The 1975 state protection law allows authorities to detain anyone suspected of committing or planning to commit an act that threatens security. The law allows suspects to be detained for up to five years with no access to a lawyer or family for 180 days and no chance of appeal.

According to the Washington Post: “It is a system in which a lawyer fights a largely futile battle against bureaucracy, shuttling daily back and forth from a special tribunal at the prison to defend the rights of political detainees before a judge who generally will send them to prison regardless, often on a technicality.” [Source: Washington Post, August 3, 2008//\]

A teacher told the Washington Post he went for weeks with no news from a close colleague who was to fly out of the country on a prestigious foreign fellowship. It turned out that for having spontaneously joined thousands in street protests he was hunted down by intelligence agents who caught him two months later. The colleague later turned up at Insein. Word from his mother was that he could no longer walk. //\

Sometimes the punishments extend beyond the prisons and the accused. Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi have had their children banned from attending school. One woman told the Washington Post she was racked by "mental torture," a mix of depression and anxiety from years spent anguishing over her imprisoned husband, an opposition politician. In 2008, the regime transferred many prisoners to remote sites, making family visits more difficult. "Before 2008, I visited him twice," a relative of prisoner Ko Ko Gyi, told the Los Angeles Times. "But since then I haven't. It's a long way." Ko Ko Gyi is serving a 65-year sentence for, among other charges, illegal use of the telephone system.

Prisons in Myanmar

Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. Detainees often face torture, beatings, and other forms of abuse. Prisoners are said to be denied adequate food, in amount and quality, and health care, to get housed in unsanitary conditions and subjected to cruel disciplinary practices and torture," one human rights the report said. Those caught smuggling drugs are sometimes kept in wooden cages with leg irons. They have to spend long hours in the lotus position thinking about what they have done.

By one count there are 44 prisons and at least 50 labor camps in Myanmar. Families of prisoners told the Los Angeles Times that the food in these facilities is often bad because corrupt officials pocket the budget, with rice gruel at breakfast, rice and watery bean soup at lunch and a thin vegetable soup at dinner.

Prisoners are sometimes kept in “cells meant for dogs” and served just enough food to keep them from starving—vegetables and “so called” meat once a week. In places where there isn’t enough food prisoners have caught rats and insects. The toilet consists of a can. Being taken outside was described as being “like a cattle drive.” There have been stories about prisoners who have been denied basic medical care and died prematurely.

Amnesty International said in 2006 it “fears for the health of prisoners in Myanmar, and particularly for those debilitated by years' of imprisonment and ill-treatment, forced to work in poor conditions in labour camps or act as military porters. Prison deaths, including those of political prisoners, are increasing. As a matter of urgency prisoners should have access to an adequate diet and health care. Access to specialist medical treatment should not be denied. Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment must be stopped - both in custody and in prison. [Source: Amnesty International, October 19, 2006 +++]

“Amnesty International expressed further concern that many prisoners of conscience are continuing to be denied their freedom, as Thet Win Aung was, solely on the basis of their peaceful exercise of basic rights. Many are in poor states of health, including both the young and aged, whose physical and mental health has been worsened by torture and ill-treatment. No independent body is currently monitoring detention conditions in Myanmar. Prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which was providing half the essential medicines and hygiene needs of the 90 prison and labour camps that it visited, were suspended after the authorities withdrew permission for it to visit prisons during 2006. The ICRC had also worked with the Myanmar authorities in improving detainees' access to medical care. +++

American and Japanese Citizens in Myanmar Jails

Kyaw Zaw Kwin, who uses the alias Nyi Nyi Aung, was arrested in September 2009 when he arrived at Yangon airport. In January 2010 he was charged with attempting to foment rebellion, forgery and violation of currency laws. He had also been accused of stirring up protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 and having links with groups behind a series of bombings. He was sentenced to three years of hard labor in February 2010.

Glenn Kessler wrote in the Washington Post: “After his arrest in September, the American was held for 17 days in a dank Burmese jail and denied food, medical treatment, sleep and the chance to speak with a U.S. government official. Even after he finally met with a representative from the U.S. Embassy, the American was transferred to solitary confinement in a cell for military dogs. [Source: Glenn Kessler, Washington Post , December 26, 2009 :::]

“The Burmese government abruptly dropped charges of instigating unrest in concert with pro-democracy groups. Instead, it accused Nyi Nyi of purely criminal acts — allegedly possessing a forged Burmese identification document and failing to declare U.S. currency totaling more than $2,000. His lawyers say he is innocent of both offenses; they note that he appears to have been seized by authorities before he even made it through customs, where he would have had to declare the currency. :::

Nyi Nyi’s mother and sister are serving prison sentences of five years and 65 years, respectively, for their involvement in 2007 “Saffron Revolution” protests. Wa Wa said that he tried to enter the country in part to see his ailing mother. But he appears to have been seized as soon as he landed at the airport in September. In October 2009, the United States asked lawyers for Aung San Suu Kyi—Nyan Win and Kyi Win—to represent Nyi Nyi Aung. In March 2010 he was released by the Myanmar government, which cited friendly relations with the U.S. as one reason for freeing him.

Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “A Japanese journalist arrested in Myanmar while trying to cover its elections says he was locked up in a room that looked like a pigpen, but shed tears of joy when fellow inmates thanked him for coming to report on the country. Toru Yamaji, 49, a reporter with the Tokyo-based APF news agency, was detained on the eastern border of Myanmar and two days later. Yamaji said he had barely entered the country for an hour when he was surrounded by four men who said they were secret police and took him to a police station near the border. "I was in a solitary room in what looked like a pigpen covered with bars," Yamaji said in a statement released by APF. Inmates in a nearby cell were political prisoners, including a pro-democracy activist who had been imprisoned since 1995, and they thanked him for doing journalistic work that could help their cause, according to Yamaji. "I was so happy I cried," he said. Yamaji said officers threatened to keep him for five or seven years. Skirmishes broke out between ethnic rebels and government troops, and shots were fired into his building, filling him with fear, he recalled. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, November 10, 2010]

Insein Prison

The main prison for political prisoners, Insein, is pronounced insane. It is Myanmar’s largest prison, housing thousands of prisoners, with hundreds of them being political prisoners. One female prisoner who served four years there told National Geographic, "Inside that building, your worst enemies are bad sanitary facilities and lack of reading material." One former prisoner called Insein the "darkest hellhole in Burma," which is saying something in a nation with some of the worst jails on Earth.

Described as "darkest hell-hole in Burma,” where torture is common place and disease is rife, Myanmar's Insein Prison is the brutal symbol of the ruling junta's repression. Built by former colonial power Britain, it has “been the heart of Myanmar's darkness “ for hundreds of political prisoners. "It's like a hell where people really suffer. It's some kind of silent "killing field," Bo Kyi, who spent seven years in the jail following a failed student uprising in 1988, told AFP. He told the BBC the prison has the capacity to house 5,000-6,000 prisoners. He estimates there are currently some 10,000 in detention.

AFP reported: “The heavily secured Insein is home to many of the 2,100 political prisoners which the United Nations says are held in Myanmar's prisons, often on spurious sentences of up to 60 years. At least 139 political detainees have died in detention in the country since 1988, several of them in Insein, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners of Burma (AAPPB), co-founded by former imate Bo Kyi. [Source: AFP, May 31, 2009 **]

“Details of conditions inside the secretive jail emerge mostly from former prisoners, although Tomas Okea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, visited the prison for four hours in February and met five inmates. He said after his visit that many detainees suffered from a lack of medical care during imprisonment. **

“Many prisoners are starving - their rations of food consist of boiled water with a few sparse vegetables, fish paste and occasional rations of meat along with overcooked rice, while water is not purified. The conditions mean that diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B are rife, while joint pains, eyesight problems and mental illness are commonplace. But access to a doctor is rare. "They give you aspirins and another drug for sneezing, whatever illness you've got," said Aung Myo Thein, whose elder brother was also imprisoned and now suffers severe depression. **

“Due to dirty needles, medical treatment can itself be hazardous. Last year media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that poet Aung Than, a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, was probably infected with the HIV virus when he was forcibly injected in Insein prison hospital. Many other prominent prisoners have been denied access to healthcare and have been moved since October 2008 to jails hundreds of miles from their families. The International Committee of the Red Cross made its last visit to Insein Prison in November 2005, and two months later suspended its prison visits saying it could not fulfil its independent, impartial mandate. **

Imprisoned for Seven Years Inside Burma's Insein Prison

The BBC reported: Bo Kyi, now joint secretary of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), has first-hand experience of life in Insein jail. He was jailed for more than seven years for political dissent, and was kept in solitary confinement for more than a year, in a concrete cell that was about 8ft by 12ft (2.5m by 3.5m). There was no toilet in the cell - just a bucket filled with urine and faeces. He slept on a mat on the floor. [Source: BBC, May 14, 2009 ==]

“Mr Kyi says he was tortured and beaten by the prison guards. He was shackled in heavy chains, with a metal bar between his legs, which made it difficult to walk. Every morning for about two weeks, he says he was made to "exercise" - forced to adopt awkward positions and if he failed he was brutally beaten. During this time he was not allowed to shower and was forced to sleep on bare concrete. ==

“He was later moved from isolation and shared an overcrowded cell with four other political prisoners. Once a week they were able to wash their clothes. But during the stifling summers he said there was no water to bathe. With only three prison doctors to treat 10,000 inmates, he says diseases such as tuberculosis, scabies and dysentery were rife. Mental illness was also widespread. ==

AFP reported” “Former prisoner Aung Myo Naing, who spent more than eight years there, said that each cell in Insein is 8 by 11 feet (2.5 by 3.5 meters), furnished with two bamboo mats and two uncovered toilet buckets. "Insein Prison is a deadly torture camp," the 41-year-old said, describing one period of about 45 days when he was kept in solitary confinement and forbidden to read, write or bathe. [Source: AFP, May 31, 2009 **]

“Past prisoners have described novel methods of communicating during these times, scratching messages to one another on cigarette filter papers and feeding them through holes in prison walls. Inmates are given 15 minutes outside of the cell daily to shower, but they have no soap and no spare clothes to change into.” **

Life in Prison for Myanmar Political Prisoners

Political prisoners are allowed to talk to each other or other prisoners but they rarely to get the chance to exercise or bathe. "But as long as you obey the rules, some guards show you kindness that makes Burmese special," one prisoner told National Geographic.Prisoners deemed "troublemakers" face years in solitary confinement, they say, and torture sessions that include kneeling for hours, severe beatings for moving, being suspended by the wrists and water torture.

On the living conditions of Myanmar’s political prisoners, The Los Angeles Times reported: “Sentenced to impossibly long prison terms for speaking out against the repressive military government, they face torture, barely edible food, little or no medical care and years in solitary confinement. Some are forbidden to speak for years. The "crimes" prosecuted by the regime include demonstrating, passing on rumors, "undermining the state" and possessing uncensored videotapes. Those who have been jailed include comedians, musicians, artists and a writer convicted of inserting a message in a Valentine's Day poem. [Source: Los Angeles Times, December 05, 2010 ==]

“For many, the decades-long sentences are abstract numbers, their release dependent more on a political deal or a hoped-for change in government than in serving out their time. "There's a signboard inside with the length of your sentence," said Phyo Min Thein, who served 15 years for opposing the regime, including five during which he wasn't allowed to talk. "My first five years, I hoped for freedom. After that, you just have to live." One of the toughest challenges is staying mentally fit. The lack of news, human contact or contact with loved ones eats away at you, former prisoners and family members said, deepening your isolation. "You become more hungry for information than for food," Min Ko Naing, a leader of the student movement that rose up against the regime in 1988 who is serving a 65-year sentence, once said. ==

“Some described small acts of defiance: hiding a banned book by Suu Kyi in a hole carved out of the floor under a chamber pot, smuggling out appeals to the United Nations or singing protest songs, even if it meant severe punishment or years added to their sentence. Former prisoners said they tried to stay sharp by singing, reciting Buddhist verses, playing mental games and meditating. Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest Nov. 14, said she drew strength from dawn meditation sessions. "Some people go mad talking to themselves," Phyo Min Thein said. "You start imagining you see your mother in front of you." Family visits, when they're permitted, may be limited to an hour or two a month, with guards hovering. ==

“Some of the detainees are sentenced to more than century in prison, and in Myanmar, political prisoners are rarely released for good behavior. U Khun Htun Oo, 67, a political representative of the Shan ethnic minority in failing health, received 93 years in 2005 for a private discussion about political transition. "And they know they can re-arrest you any time; they play games," said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners (Burma), a Thailand-based activist group. " ==

“Conditions varied depending on the prison. A former inmate of Insein Prison said he spent five years in an 8-by-12-foot room that housed up to seven people. Prisoners were given 15 minutes a day to clean out their waste and wash themselves, using a plate, not a bowl. "It's very difficult to bathe with a plate," he said. ==

“Family members say their relatives eventually become inured. During Htay Kywe's first prison sentence, his father died, leaving him quite depressed. During his second sentence, during which his mother died, he took personal setbacks in stride, relatives said. "They never tell us about torture, they don't want us to worry," said a relative of husband-and-wife student protesters Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. "Frankly, we don't want to know either. It would only make things harder." ==

Survival Tactics of Myanmar Political Prisoners

The Washington Post reported: Inside, dissidents detained by the military junta tapped out messages on water pipes and listened to them echo from one cell to the next. They spelled words by knocking on walls, each series of sounds a letter of the alphabet. Sometimes they bribed guards with cigarettes to pass along coded messages in necklaces made of pebbles and strings of plastic bags. [Source: Washington Post, August 3, 2008 //\]

One former prisoner told the Washington Post In prison, "you know who your real friends are; you learn the meaning of 'friend.' We shared everything we had: our food and all our knowledge." He and two prison mates tore apart an old English primer, the only book that one of them had managed to have smuggled inside. They took turns reading and hiding the pieces, burying them in the soil outside their cells. From the pages he learned to speak English. //\

To counter the hopelessness, the Washington Post reported, many detainees said they relied on meditation. For others, the only cure was a chance to fight again beyond prison walls. "You can't even see the sky. No stars. No moon. No sun, " said Win Naing, 71, who was once part of the political party of U Nu, the prime minister deposed in a 1962 military coup. For years, Win Naing has led an unspecified number of national politicians in a loose, unofficial opposition group, because, he said, a democracy requires multiple parties. But his detention last year risked all that. "I thought I wouldn't be released for 20 or 30 years. I was almost totally hopeless," he said. "If I get released, I thought, I shouldn't get involved in politics." //\

Kyaw Min Yu is a founder of the 88 Generation, an organization that includes many former political prisoners. Joshua Hammer wrote in the Smithsonian magazine: “Sentenced to life in 1990 for his role as a student organizer in the 1988 uprising, he was freed in February 2012 after nearly 22 years, as part of the general amnesty. A wiry man with chiseled good looks and capable English, Kyaw Min Yu believes that his embrace of Buddhist practice saved his life in prison. Initially he was “full of rage” at his captors, he tells me after the rally; he was tortured and placed in solitary. Then, Kyaw Min Yuu found himself in the same cell as a monk, who began to teach him vipassana meditation. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012 /*]

Soon he was meditating for an hour each morning and evening. Other prisoners began to follow his example. “I diminished my anger and hatred, so I could see the guards as poor, illiterate men, with small brains, who understood only two things—following orders and making threats,” he said. He ended outbursts toward his guards. The beatings gradually ended, and guards who once brutalized him began to smuggle radios, food, novels and an English-language dictionary to him and to his fellow inmates. “These things helped us survive,” he told me. Even in the darkest corners of the regime’s gulag, Buddhism served as a source of light. /*\

Life of Myanmar Political Prisoner

Steve Finch wrote in the Washington Post: Saw Hlaing has been sentenced seven times by Burma’s military-style courts and has spent more than 14 years in jails across the country. During his most recent term behind bars — about 6½ years — his wife died, as did his father, his son became a man, and his daughter gave birth to his first grandchild. [Source: Steve Finch, Washington Post , August 21, 2012]

Soon after Saw Hlaing was released from a prison far from his home — a tactic that keeps detainees from their families, another grievance of government critics — he was found to have liver cancer, a condition he attributed to years of terrible prison food and water poisoned by colonial-era lead pipes at the jail. When doctors said he could not be treated in Burma, Suu Kyi and other well-wishers, as well as a hospital in Mandalay, donated tens of thousands of dollars so he could receive treatment abroad, but the authorities took three months to supply a passport, he said. His 23-year-old son then donated half of his healthy liver, and Saw Hlaing said he spent six months in a New Delhi hospital recovering after a transplant operation. After he returned to Rangoon on Aug. 6, the government placed a restriction on his passport, preventing him from traveling abroad freely.

See Opposition Politicians, Min Ko Naing, Tin Oo, Win Tin

Win Tin’s Long Imprisonment and Release from Prison

Win Tin was arrested in July 1989 and sentenced to jail for giving shelter to a girl thought to have received an illegal abortion. While inside, he received additional punishment for agitating against the military government and distributing propaganda, bringing his total sentence to 20 years.

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post, “While Aung San Suu Kyi was confined to her home and kept away from her family for most of the period between 1989 to 2010, Win Tin was confined to a tiny prison cell — tortured, he said, through sleep deprivation and denied adequate medical treatment for a heart condition....Win Tin recalls smuggling fragments of brick into his cell during his long incarceration, grinding them into an orange paste and using the paste to write poems and political thoughts on his cell walls, just to stay sane. Time and again, the military offered to release him if he would promise to renounce politics, but every time he refused. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, March 12, 2013 ~~]

Upon his release in 2008, Reuters reported: “Myanmar’s longest-serving political prisoner, journalist Win Tin, was freed Tuesday after 19 years in jail and immediately vowed to continue his struggle against 46 years of unbroken military rule. “I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country,” he told reporters outside a friend’s house in the former Burma’s main city, Yangon. He was still wearing his light-blue prison clothes. He was released on the same day that 9,002 prisoners were set free, but said he had complained to prison officials about being lumped in as part of a nationwide amnesty for ordinary criminals getting out on good behaviour. In protest, he refused to pick up his personal belongings or change into civilian clothes. “I did not accept their terms for the amnesty. I refused to be one of 9,002,” he said, adding that no conditions had been attached to his release. “Far from it. They should have released me five years ago. They owe me a few years,” he said. He also played down worries about his health, cited as another reason for his release. “I am quite OK. I am quite all right,” he said. [Source: Reuters, February 23, 2008 #]

“Human rights groups had feared his health was in decline. A year ago, Win Tin himself was musing about dying behind bars. “Will death be my release? As long as democracy and human rights are not within reach, I decline my release. I am prepared to stay,” he wrote in a short poem handed to visiting United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. London-based Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki said the generals may have decided to release Win Tin for fear that his death in custody could have stoked unrest only a year after major anti-junta protests led by the revered Buddhist monkhood. “Maybe they thought it was better, on balance, to have Win Tin on the outside in case he passes away rather than have him die on their watch, so to speak,” Zawacki said. #

Myanmar Political Prisoner Released After 14 Years

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “On the evening of January 12th, Chitmin Lay was in his cell, in Moulmein Prison, in the lush tropical hills of southern Burma, when guards informed him that he was a free man. He had reasons not to believe them. Burmese prisons are exceptionally isolated, and Chitmin Lay had picked up only scattered news, from a hidden radio that he shared with other inmates, about a rush of political changes that were beginning to unwind the world’s longest-running military dictatorship. He was thirty-eight, and had been arrested in 1998 for taking part in a campus demonstration at Rangoon University, where he was a literature major. Under interrogation, he was beaten and starved. Put in front of a judge in a mass trial, he was convicted of making pamphlets without approval, breaking the Emergency Provisions Act and the Unlawful Associations Act, and sentenced to thirty-one years. He had expected to resume his life in 2029. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]

“Less than twenty-four hours later, Chitmin Lay walked out of prison amid a clamorous crowd of fellow-inmates, released as part of the government’s attempt to pull itself from the ranks of the world’s most reviled regimes. There was nobody there to greet him. Chitmin Lay is not famous, and Burma had so many political prisoners that the inmate lists maintained by activists could not even agree on the English spelling of his name. He was healthy, though his left eye was failing after so many years of reading in halftnY— light. He had full cheeks around a broad smile that gave him an oddly childlike aspect, as if his body had paused the year he went away. He had no money to get to his mother’s house in Rangoon, a daylong trip. Finally, some local opposition activists gave him the equivalent of about twelve dollars for the bus. -

“On the road, Chitmin Lay noticed that the traditional thatch-roofed bamboo villages were now dotted with concrete-block houses with metal roofs. “And cell phones, those were a surprise,” he told me. “And the cars. We never used to see shiny cars.” He was eager to try the Internet. “I’d only heard about it, how essential the Internet was, and I decided that I must learn about it as soon I’m out.” Once he had greeted his startled mother and begun to consider the tasks before him—“marriage, family, job”—he signed up for a Gmail account. “ -

After “he’d been out of jail for four months... the thrill had ebbed to reveal an acute awareness of loss. “Fourteen years,” he said, and flashed a large bitter smile. We were in a booth at a candy-colored cafe called J’donuts, in an air-conditioned mall; a young couple were canoodling in a corner booth. Chitmin Lay wanted to be a teacher, but he was over the age limit for entry-level positions. “Right now, I’ll take anything I can find,” he said. Burma’s prison culture had been designed to promote maximum feelings of futility—at one jail, a new arrival was given a shard of a clay pot and ordered to “polish the mud outside until it shines like a mirror.” -

Myanmar's Prisons Embolden Political Activists

The Washington Post reported: “For many, life behind the walls instead became a rite of passage toward political maturity. "Prison happens to be the longest-running political seminar in Burma," said a scholar and political activist who spent 15 years behind bars for writings that were deemed subversive to the junta. "You could say things there that you couldn't outside, and we observed anniversaries that we couldn't in normal life." [Source: Washington Post , August 03, 2008 //\]

“They are beaten with bamboo canes. Their flesh is torn by iron rods that are rolled up and down their shins. They are forced to crawl over broken glass or sharpened gravel; deprived of sleep or water; shackled in painful positions; trapped in cells too small for them to stand upright; and surrounded by barking dogs. Others spend years in solitary confinement. Some have died under the strain, and some have slipped into insanity. Yet dissidents have often emerged unbroken, hardier or more pragmatic in their beliefs and more resolute that change will come from their actions. Time behind bars can be a vindication of their struggles, they said. Once through, they feel they have nothing else to fear — and often return straight to activism. //\

“In their cells or in snatched moments in the prison yards, they could encounter a spectrum of dissidents whom they might never otherwise have met — or had a chance to clash with. "I remember in my first months in Insein Prison, some young political prisoners came to ask me to do something for them, because the communists were waiting to 'dye them pink,' " the scholar said. //\

“It was in jail that a Rangoon University student, said he met elected members from the opposition National League for Democracy, ethnic leaders and members of countless dissident groups. "I saw the future of Burma in the prisons," he said. He heard them fiercely arguing and saw them give up visions they had once held, he said. The divides were revelatory. Democracy in the country would come, he concluded, only with "a proper understanding of each other. To do that, we need to improve the education. . . . We need better spirituality, better tolerance and better compassion." //\

“For some, an ordinary life is forever elusive. "I want to live out of water, but I can't get on the shore," said a member of a new clandestine opposition group, the 88 Generation Students, explaining why its founders felt compelled to turn again to politics within weeks of their release after nearly two decades in and out of prison. Another former prisoner, who took up his political activities within two months, after his health was largely back to normal, told the Washington Post, "In Burma there is a saying: You can't stop yourself from getting up and dancing when you hear the music," he said. "When I heard the music of politics, when many came to see me . . . things changed. I changed. I thought, what the heck." //\

Fate of 88 Prisoners

The Washington Post reported: “Now in their 40s, most of the group's founders were first rounded up as hotheaded university students who helped steer a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Bound for professions in medicine, engineering or law, many never graduated. The prisons became their university. "In '88, our generation didn't know anything about politics," said a Rangoon teacher jailed for five years in the aftermath of the uprising. He was 21 when he was arrested. "We cared [only] about brutal repression. We saw it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears." [Source: Washington Post , August 03, 2008 //\]

“For being caught one night with an anti-government pamphlet, the once starry-eyed Rangoon University student served seven years. He was lucky, he said. For being caught with two pamphlets, friends netted double the sentence. He described enduring beatings, hours in shackles and weeks in solitary confinement. When he was transferred to another prison far upcountry, his mother never knew where he was. Worst of all, he said, was his hunger for ideas. To feed his mind, he said, he sometimes used a piece of broken pottery to scrawl on the cold concrete, struggling to recall parts of beloved stories by British novelist Somerset Maugham. Or he would bribe a criminal to bring him a prison-made cheroot, a cone-shaped cigarette. Then he'd slowly unpeel its leafy layers to reveal a thumb-size square of gluey state newspaper, and with it a snippet of information from the world outside his cell.

“Now he smuggles reading material — often about democracy — to friends still inside. Sometimes he returns from a prison visit with a poem. A poet he befriended recently wrote about the insanity of living within its walls: The white color of the moonlight, / Sticking like a sword/ inside that very wall,/ Will make the demand/ For the rest of your life to be numb to thoughts,/ For your sorrows to swell, / For your philosophy to be always aching.”

The Washington Post asked who represented some of the 88 leaders and other dissidents whether he had ever secured the release of a political detainee: “He thought a moment, set down his cup of tea and related the lone incident of his 27-year career: accusations against a politician client turned out to be so outlandish that a 10-year sentence was revoked.”

Myanmar Political Prisoners Willing to Forgive

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Willingness to forgive — seemingly incomprehensible to many outsiders — if not always forget, is shared by thousands of dissidents and student leaders released from prisons or invited back to Myanmar. This flexibility on both sides offers hope the country can move more quickly toward national reconciliation, avoiding a settling of scores and crippling divisions seen in other countries struggling to emerge from decades of totalitarian rule. "It's amazing; I can't fully understand it," said Matt F. Smith, Southeast Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It is definitely a fascinating phenomenon to see people back and showing no bitterness." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2012 ]

“One explanation often given for this wary cooperation of former enemies after decades of repression and suffering is Buddhism, the religion followed by about 90 percent of Myanmar's population, with its emphasis on tolerance and forgiveness. Buddhism's Theravada school followed here can be hard-line relative to the practice of Buddhism elsewhere:Buddhist monks here have led the campaign to deport Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, including some who have threatened to abandon their monasteries and join the army to "protect" the country by force if Muslims gain more rights. Even so, the religion has generally been seen as a calming influence. "The Burmese are deeply religious," said Morten Pedersen, senior lecturer with the Australian Defense Force Academy. "Sure, Buddhists are responsible for killing a lot of people, but you can't just write off its importance."

“Other more practical factors may also be at work. Some say government opponents learned their lesson after 1990, when they won a multiparty election and couldn't resist crowing, including a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party who suggested the generals might face a Nuremburg-style trial. Alarmed, the military refused to accept the results and instead instituted a massive crackdown. Taking a slower, non-vindictive approach offers better odds that nascent reforms can take root, critics said, reducing the risk of a military backlash. "If you fight directly against them, they'll shoot. We tried that in 1988," said Kyaw Yin Myint, editor of the Kumudra Journal in Yangon. "Sure, we're angry inside, we're humans. But you must be more clever."

“Though there are many good things about forgiveness, some cautioned against taking it too far. "Buddhism tends to forgive things," said Suu Nget, a Mandalay-based writer blacklisted by the regime. "But if you get too cozy, you can forget your principles and become a traitor to your ideals."

Torture in Myanmar

Prisoners and detainees in Myanmar are interrogated, deprived of sleep, kicked, beaten, burned with dripping wax and isolated. Prisoners deemed "troublemakers" face years in solitary confinement and torture sessions that include kneeling for hours, severe beatings for moving, being suspended by the wrists and water torture. AFP reported: “Several political prisoners told of how they suffered bruising weeks-long interrogations at the hands of the junta's jailers at Insein. Bo Kyi said during one round of questioning he was whipped with a rubber cord as he lay on his stomach and counted 150 lashes before he lost consciousness and awoke in a solitary cell. He said he was then forced to assume different positions for hour-long periods while shackled in chains with a bar between his legs. [Source: AFP, May 31, 2009]

UK activist James Mawdsley, who was jailed three time in Myanmar and wrote a book about his experience called “The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma” (Northpoint Press, 2002), said he was once beaten so badly his nose was broken. While in solitary confinement he said he was forced to stand for 15 hours with a bag over his head and was beaten with bamboo sticks every time he fell down.

It is seems odd that torture is so common in country of Buddhists that believe the killing of any living thing, even a bug, is wrong. One political prisoner who said he wasn’t tortured but was subjected to mental and physical abuse told the New York Times, “They would say, ‘Old man, what are you thinking about? If they didn’t like your answer, they’d beat you.’ He said once guards told him to catch flies in his cell. When he couldn’t catch any the guards made him cross his hands, hold his ears and jump and down, for hours. Another former prisoner said he wasn’t tortured himself but “everyday I would hear the sounds of beating, shouting, yelling. It filled the jail.”

Torture in Burma was graphically described in 1993 novel “Irrawaddy Tango” by Wendy Law-Yone. One prisoner told the Independent that when he arrived at prisoner he was told, "You know what prisons is? It is where people are slowly tortured to death." When they leave they are told, "We never tortured you did we? If you ever say that we tortured you, you'd better not be around." Amnesty International, described 15 political prisoners who embarked on a hunger strike to protest their confinement and were been denied water as punishment. Eight of them, were sent to cells built for dogs, which had no light, no mats or bedding, and insufficient space for humans to stand.

Torture of Monks and Comedians

U Gambira, a Buddhist monk sentenced to 63 years in prison for his role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests was badly tortured in 2009 according to Amnesty International, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and his elder sister, Ma Khin Thu Htay. The monk was given narcotic injections to silence him rather than appropriate medical care. According to his sister, he was beaten on the head with a stick “every 15 minutes for the entire month of April 2009.” [Source: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, November 10, 2011 }{]

“He was beaten in this manner for requesting permission to walk for his health,” she wrote in a recent letter to Myanmar’s president. “While he was being beaten, his hands were placed behind his back and handcuffed, and he was forced to wear iron shackles. In addition, he was hooded with a black cloth bag and pieces of cloth were forcefully put in his mouth . . . he was fed meals with a spoon by prison guards . . . and [had to] urinate or defecate on the chair.” By the time he was transferred to another prison in May, he was, according to a prison official, “a crazy guy.” }{

See Moustache Brothers

Arrest and Torture of Suspected Kachin Insurgents

Reporting from Myitkyina in Kachin State, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: Of the more than 100,000 people uprooted by the fighting so far, about 7,000 live in dusty displaced-person camps around Myitkyina, a government-controlled port town. In the wake of a series of mysterious bombings in recent years, rights groups say that dozens of able-bodied Kachin men have been detained by security forces and abused with impunity. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, February 24, 2014]

:In June 2012, another farmer, Brang Shawng, 26, was arrested at a township camp shortly after fleeing clashes near his village. For the next three days and nights, he said, military intelligence personnel brutally tortured him to extract a fake confession. He was bound to a chair and beaten before hot knives were burned into his cheeks, thighs and navel, leaving permanent scars, he said.

Brang Shawng was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of being a sergeant in the independence army and involvement in a bombing. When a judge threw out his initial confession due to evidence of coercion, the judge was replaced, according to his laywer, Mar Kar. “I had no choice but to confess again,” Brang Shawng said, adding that he feared more abuse from his captors. Public pressure helped bring about Brang Shawng’s release in July 2013. But Mar Kar said his hands are full with similar cases that have only deepened resentment among ethnic Kachins toward the central government.

In 2012 alone, the Asian Human Rights Commission documented 36 cases of people being arrested and tortured by security forces in Kachin state for allegedly having “unlawful” contact with the independence army. In military custody, Mar Kar said, some were forced to stand naked and sodomize each other. In January 2014, a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention issued a ruling stating that “military courts and tribunals and the military assuming the role of a justice provider is unacceptable, as these fall far below the requirements of international human rights standards.”

Myanmar Political Prisoners Who Died Under Detention

In October 2007, the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said that Myanmar opposition party member died during interrogation. Associated Press reported” The Myanmar exile group, made up of former political prisoners, said authorities had recently informed the family of Win Shwe, 42, that he had died during interrogation in the central region of Sagaing. He and five colleagues had been arrested days before in the crackdown that followed the Saffron Revolution protests. The group said Win Shwe, a member of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), was cremated at the detention center. [Source: AP, October 10, 2007]

In October 2006, Amnesty International said it was “deeply concerned by the death in Mandalay Prison of student leader and prisoner of conscience Thet Win Aung, aged 34. “Ko Thet Win Aung had been imprisoned since 1998 for his part in organising peaceful small scale student demonstrations which called for improvements to the educational system in Myanmar and for the release of political prisoners.He had been badly tortured during his imprisonment, and had also suffered from a variety of health problems, including malaria. Ko Thet Win Aung had protested the lack of adequate medical treatment and poor diet in prison by going on hunger strike in 2002. By 2005 he was reported to have been unable to walk unassisted. [Source: Amnesty International, October 19, 2006 \=/]

“Ko Thet Win Aung was arrested on 4 October 1998 and sentenced to 52 years' imprisonment. This was subsequently increased to 59 years. He took part in 1988 demonstrations against 26 years of military rule, when he was a schoolboy studying in Yangon, Myanmar's capital city. He was one of the leading members of the local high school students' union, and in 1989 became a vice-general secretary of the Basic Education Student Union (BESU). \=/

“Ko Thet Win Aung was dismissed from school in 1991 for his political activities and in September of that year was detained for nine months during which time he was reportedly tortured. Subsequently he became a leading member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). He was arrested with others including students Aye Aung and Myo Min Zaw, who are both still imprisoned and in a poor state of health, for his part in organising small scale student demonstrations. After being held incommunicado he was sentenced in a 10 day closed trial inside Insein Prison, the main prison where political prisoners are held in Myanmar. \=/

“Ko Thet Win Aung and others was given the maximum sentences possible under security legislation and laws on publication, which, for example, requires that leaflets be approved by the official censor. As is the case in other convictions of political prisoners, his sentence was applied cumulatively, rather than being served concurrently. He was held for the most part in prisons distant from his family, often several days journey. The practise of sending prisoners to distant prisons commonly jeopardizes prisoners' health by denying them access to essential food and medicine provided by family visits. It is believed that in Mandalay Prison, where he died, the authorities have in 2006 restricted prisoners' access to food and medicine. \=/

Freeing Political Prisoners

It is customary for the government to periodically free hundreds, even thousands, of prisoners or commute death sentences to life imprisonment or cut one years off sentences. Sometimes large numbers of prisoners, some of them political prisoners, are released as part of a general amnesty. Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “Although about 1,000 political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties in the past decade, more than 200 remain behind bars from the era of the pro-democracy movement. More have been arrested in the past year, for taking part in unlicensed protests or for involvement in separatist movements. The government has convened a committee to review the cases of everyone still behind bars, fulfilling a promise made just before President Obama’s visit in November 2012. But released prisoners complain that they are still routinely denied passports, as well as entry to universities to resume studies interrupted by long jail terms. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, March 12, 2013 ~~]

In February 2013, the U.S. State Department reported: “ In several stages over the last 18 months the government has released nearly 800 political prisoners, including its most high profile dissidents—leaders of mass movements, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, people like Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, U Gambira, Hkun Htun Oo and others. They walked out of prisons across the country to cheering crowds and weeping family members. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013 ^]

“While the release of these prisoners was historic, the story of political prisoners in Burma did not end there. Nearly a year later, the government has formed an official “Political Prisoner Review Committee,” which held its first meeting in February in Rangoon. This Committee, led by the Office of the President, is composed of eight government officials and eight former political prisoner representatives. The work of this committee will not be easy. But its existence is a major step forward and the key to finding out the facts, healing wounds of the past, and moving forward towards national reconciliation. The Committee has the potential to achieve three objectives critical to the country’s democratic transition. First, it can accurately determine the number of remaining political prisoners in detention and prompt their unconditional release. Second, the Committee’s consideration of specific cases should give it an opportunity to identify laws that need to be reformed going forward and to make recommendations to that end. Finally, the Committee has the potential to help advance efforts to provide care and facilitate the reintegration of released prisoners. ^

“Many former prisoners experienced extremely harsh conditions, many years of solitary confinement, and denial of medical care. A number of these former prisoners are struggling to reintegrate into society. They lack housing and medical care, and many suffer from PTSD or depression. In some cases, the government has denied them passports or prevented them from continuing their educations or obtaining credentials they had already earned, so they lack the degrees and certificates necessary to find jobs. Since release, several former prisoners have died from severe medical complications developed while in prison. ^

See History

Myanmar President Thein Sein Pledges to Free All Political Prisoners

During his visit to Britain in July 2013, Myanmar President Thein Sein has pledged to free all political prisoners by the end of the year. "I guarantee to you that by the end of this year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar," Presdient Thein Sein told an audience at the Chatham House think-tank in London. "We are aiming for nothing less than a transition from half a century of military rule and authoritarianism to democracy." [Source: DW, Reuters, AFP, AP, July 15, 2013]

Since taking office in 2011, Thein Sein, a former military commander, has freed hundreds of political prisoners in a swathe of reforms. After the visit to Britain Myanmar freed around 70 political prisoners. AFP reported: “Some of the political prisoners to be released include ethnic minority rebels from northern Kachin state, where the government is working on brokering a crucial ceasefire deal. Rights groups and officials estimate there were around 150 political prisoners in Myanmar ahead of the announcement. [Source: AFP, July 23, 2013]

Ethnic Rebels Among 106 Political Prisoners Released in Late 2013

In October 2013, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters reported: “Myanmar released 56 political prisoners in a presidential amnesty mainly for members of ethnic minority armies with which the government is seeking peace deals, activist and official sources said. The release is the second since the country's reformist President Thein Sein made a promise during a trip to Britain in July that all prisoners of conscience would be freed by the end of the year. A total of 73 were released on July 23. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, October 8, 2013]

The prisoners were set free from at least a dozen detention centres across the country. According to Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), a body that monitors prisoners of conscience held in Myanmar, most of those released were former members of either the Shan State Army or the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The two rebel groups are among about a dozen that for decades fought the central government in pursuit of greater autonomy in the mountains and jungles along the borders with China and Thailand.

To meet another condition to end sanctions, Thein Sein's government launched a complex and ambitious peace process in 2011. Though a preliminary peace agreement was made with the Shan group, the far stronger KIA has yet to come on board and conflict with the military is still going on. Talks between a government delegation and the KIA were due to take place in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina. Previous rounds have all ended in stalemate.

Bo Kyi, who is also a member of a panel tasked with establishing which inmates were jailed for political reasons, said the AAPP's research had found Myanmar was still holding 133 political detainees and 232 activists were awaiting trial. "We have asked the president for the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners. I just don't know why he released only 56 today," said Bo Kyi, who was himself once a political prisoner.

In a December 31, 2013 Facebook posting, presidential spokesman Ye Htut wrote: “I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the people.” In December 2013, Kyaw Thu of Bloomberg wrote: “Myanmar freed 40 political prisoners and granted amnesty to 200 others facing charges following President Thein Sein’s pledge to increase freedom in the country, according to a group representing the detainees. [Source: Kyaw Thu, Bloomberg, December 31, 2013]

Many Kachins Among the Political Prisoners Still in Jail in Early 2014

Reporting from Myitkyina in Kachin State, Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post: “When President Thein Sein pledged that all of Burma’s political prisoners would be released by the end of last year, Hkawn Nan believed that her husband would be among them. Arrested by the army in June 2012 while driving cattle near a displaced persons camp where his family was living, Brang Yung, 25, and another ethnic Kachin man, Lahpai Gam, 52, endured torture and sodomy to force a false confession of ties to a rebel group, according to their lawyers. The Burmese government did free several hundred political prisoners last year, the latest grand gesture in the transition from a military dictatorship...But the two cattle-herders remain behind bars, a sign that the promise of amnesty for prisoners remains incomplete. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, February 24, 2014]

Rights groups say that former prisoners remain subject to rearrest at any time and that more detainees languish in jail under catch-all laws that disproportionately target Kachins and other ethnic minorities, particularly those from the war-torn northern highlands.“Peoples’ lives are being torn apart, and there is no access to justice,’’ said Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based Fortify Rights, an independent advocacy group. “This is not reform. ”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a body that monitors prisoners of conscience in Burma, at least 33 political inmates remain incarcerated, and 166 are awaiting trial. At least 10 people have been arrested since the start of the year, some of them held under the same laws used to detain others who were granted amnesty.

Brang Yung and Lahpai Ga stand accused of links to the independence army and multiple bombings. A United Nations working group on arbitrary detention The group asserted that Lahpai Gam has been “denied his fundamental right to a fair trial” and called for his immediate release, while pointing out that the Burmese government has not denied allegations of torture.

But local rights activists in Kachin State contend that the ongoing detentions, bogus charges and abuse are part of a broader campaign to scare tens of thousands of displaced Kachins living in government-held territory to return home. International aid agencies have faced heavy restrictions since the conflict reignited.

To some critics, the military’s manipulation of courts is further evidence that Thein Sein’s authority in Kachin State takes a back seat to that of the Burmese Army’s Northern Command, which has long ignored his orders for a cease-fire. For the prisoners’ relatives confined to the camps around Myitkyina, the wait drags on. Lashi Lu, 45, the wife of Lahpai Gam, relies on food handouts and has not found work. The last time she was able to see her husband in prison, she was jarred by his failing health, but even more by the psychological toll the punishment has taken. “Maybe one day he will be free again,” she said. “But he will not be the same man.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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