Political prisoner’s dining room of hell
The author is a former political prisoner who spent over five years inside Myanmar’s prison system, including one-and-a-half years inside the notorious Insein Prison. He was the recipient of the 2010 Amnesty International New Zealand Human Rights Defender Award and resides in New Zealand where he heads Burma Campaign New Zealand, which he founded in 2007. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea.
The hybrid military-civilian government of Myanmar recently granted amnesty to 14,600 prisoners, 47 of whom were political. The imputes was its bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. Although Myanmar’s attempt may not affect me directly, I am deeply concerned for the thousands of political prisoners who remain behind bars, millions of people from different ethnic nationalities who have been literally under attack, and the millions more who have been forced to flee.
Not without warrant, Myanmar has been described as one of the worst human rights violators in the world since Aug. 8, 1988, and its governing regime has been ranked as one of the lowest in numerous human rights reviews and freedom indexes. However, some neighboring countries have given favor to this new regime and have supported its bid to be the chair of ASEAN. A troubling fact is that some members of ASEAN lobbied member Asia Pacific rim states to revoke economic sanctions that have been imposed on the regime.
It is time to rethink the achievements and development of human rights and freedom in not only Myanmar, but also in member countries of ASEAN and the Asia Pacific region. However, I would like to focus specifically on the military regime of Myanmar that has dominated the country since 1962, especially as it continues to be the black sheep in the family of Asia Pacific nations.
Conditions in Myanmar - and inside its prisons in particular - have worsened at the same time that regional economies have translated remarkable economic growth into better welfare systems. Although this regime released dozens of political prisoners recently, there are still more than 2,000 political prisoners locked up.
I spent over five years inside Myanmar’s prison system as a political prisoner, including one-and-a-half years inside the notorious Insein Prison. Let’s take a look at the living conditions of Myanmar’s political prisoners.
When political prisoner are arrested in Myanmar, they are interrogated for a couple of weeks by military intelligence officers. No political prisoner ever knows whether it is day or night during the investigation period, as intelligence personnel blindfold them and put hoods over their heads. They are fed only a teaspoon of water a day. Neither rice nor curry is provided. Most are put into cold and dark rooms without a pillow or blanket. None are allowed to take a shower. Some are tortured by electric shock as their legs shackled. The majority of political prisoners are tortured both physically and mentally.
Even before finishing the interrogation, the junta’s henchmen have decided upon a sentence. Political activists are usually sentenced to long periods of imprisonment with hard labor. Every political prisoner has lost his or her basic rights as a human being before even entering a courtroom. The prison diet is neither sustainable nor nutritious. After the two-week interrogation, prisoners are given cooked rice with a strong, bad smell, and the so-called curry is a watery blend of green roots with a spoonful of fish-paste. Medical treatment and medicine are out of the question.
No political prisoner is allowed to read or write in prison. No library, newspaper, radio, or magazine is provided for political prisoners. This has prompted a few student political prisoners to bribe wardens to gain access to an English-Burmese dictionary, grammar books and Time magazines to teach themselves English. They studied English with plastic bags and sticks, instead of a paper and pen, and they did their homework at night and slept during the day in order to avoid being seen by prison guards.
If caught with a grammar book or dictionary, prisoners are punished by being treated as dogs and put into cells where police dogs are usually kept. They have to kneel down like a dog and bark to the prison warden when their names are called. They are forced to crawl for nearly 300 meters every morning for at least one month. They must eat their rice and fish paste meals off the floor with their mouths. They are not allowed to shower or change any item of clothing when kept in the dog cells.
There are 43 prisons and hundreds of quarry camps spread across the country. Insein Prison is the biggest. It is notorious for torture, the spread HIV/AIDS and the male child sex trade. It has been estimated that there is only one 100-bed hospital for more than 10,000 prisoners and male child prisoners are bought and sold for non-political prisoners’ sexual pleasure.
Prisoners are used as human minesweepers on the front lines to clear fields and act as porters for soldiers. The unpaid labor of both political and non-political prisoners is being used to support the army’s modernization projects. Thousands of prisoners are being sent to quarry camps to mine and chip stone. These 91 quarry camps supply stones for the construction of military tunnels and for the maintenance of railway tracks. Many of the bridges, barracks, strategic bunkers and hotels in Myanmar have been built wholly or in part with forced prison labor. The prison authorities and policemen are making money from the prisoners. They are cash cows. Some of the regime’s tycoons have enjoyed luxurious lives off of prisoners’ labor.
In many modern countries, prisons are called correctional facilities where convicts are reeducated in their civic duties. However, prisons in Myanmar act as a marketplace for heroin, and a breeding ground for HIV/AIDS and sex industry for pedophiles. It’s a dining room of hell for political prisoners and a profitable and booming business for wardens and policemen.
According to the research unit of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, 148 people died in the interrogation camps and prisons between 1988 and 2010, and there were 2,209 political prisoners, including monks, nuns, students, professionals, labor activists and politicians at the beginning of 2011.
In addition, dozens of Myanmar’s own Nelson Mandelas have spent more than two decades on the floors of 8-square foot cells. Tragically, many have passed half of their lives in solitary confinement. The health of the famous student leader Min Ko Naing, who was sentenced to 65 years imprisonment, is deteriorating and he suffers from high blood pressure.
These circumstances are just the tip of the iceberg in Myanmar. None of these atrocious human rights violations can be wiped out without the people’s participation in the decision making process. One might hope that the new regime turns over a new leaf, takes a step back from inhuman behavior and stops committing crimes against humanity.
In the meantime, the policymakers of ASEAN and other nations in the region need to think twice about supporting the regime’s bid for the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. We must make this a civilized century; countries need to respect the universal values of human rights. It is our moral responsibility to speak out against crimes against humanity in Myanmar and it is the right time to invoke change.