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Prison experience in Burma

Subject: Prison experience in Burma

Burma Issues


By Mahn Nyunt Maung, 


I was one of the leaders of a group of writers and artists during
the nationwide, anti-government uprising in Burma in 1988. Sometime
after the reactionary military coup, and the following crackdown on
pro-democracy demonstrators in which several thousand people were
killed by the army, political parties were allowed to form under
the regulation of the new SLORC junta.(SLORC is the acronym for the
ruling "State Law and Order Restoration Council", and is basically
just a reformulated mix of the same military strongmen, under the
ruthless leadership of longtime dictator Ne Win, who have ruled
Burma under the BSPP government(Burma Socialist Program Party)
since 1962).  I became the general secretary of the Union Karen
League party, and concurrently served as a central committee member
of the League for Democracy and Peace, which was led by former
Burmese prime minister U Nu.  During the 1990 general elections I
registered as a candidate from the Wakema constituency no.(1). The
results of the 1990 multi-party elections, which were
overwhelmingly won by opposition candidates, were never recognized
by the Slorc, who's government was convincingly rejected by the
people.  Slorc continued to run the country under a one-party
dictatorship, as has been the political situation in Burma since Ne
Win's coup of 1962.
I was later arrested by junta security forces in October of 1991,
in a crackdown stemming from an armed conflict in the Delta region
between the junta and Karen nationals. During that time, I openly
expressed my opinion by comparing the situation with that of
communal ethnic conflict which broke out in the same area during
the early years of Japan's occupation of Burma in WW 2, and by
suggesting that the conflict should be settled through
negotiations. The junta not only ignored my suggestions, but
further decided to arrest me, together with the Joint Secretary of
the Union Karen League, on October 9, 1991. Both of us were brought
to a military intelligence interrogation center situated on the
Baundry Road in Rangoon, Burma's capital city. We were ceaselessly
interrogated there from evening until daybreak, and then sent on to
the notorious Insein prison, some miles north of Rangoon.
I was released on April 29 of this year(1992) in accordance with
the Slorc's Declaration 11/92, which allowed a handful of political
prisoners to go free, largely as a PR attempt to persuade
international observers that the oppressive situation inside Burma
was fundamentally changing. I left Rangoon at midnight on Sep. 6
and fled to the liberated area. 

Political Situation
As many as 92 political parties competed in the 1990 general
elections. Apart from the National Unity Party (NUP), which was the
new face of the old Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), none of
the parties were able to campaign properly. NUP candidates spent
hundreds of thousands of Kyats(Burmese currency unit) in every
constituency. In remote areas such as Kachin State, they used
Slorc's military forces to intimidate voters and force them to vote
for the NUP candidates. After the disastrous election results(in
Slorc's eyes) the junta formed  Election Tribunals to take action
against the elected representatives of the opposition parties by
ordering them to submit campaign expenditures audits in hopes of
discovering faults and irregularities. In the advent of discovering
any alleged "inconsistencies", the accused opposition members were
prosecuted, in some cases even sentenced to imprisonment. 
In another attempt to harass the opposition political parties after
the elections, Minister of Home Affairs Lt. Gen. Phone Myint,
summoned the leaders of the opposition groups to his office, and
forced them to sign the Slorc Declaration 1/90, and make personal
declarations stating that the signatories opposed the parallel
governments led by U Nu and Dr. Sein Win, in the presence of police
and judicial authorities. The junta authorities threatened that any
person who refused to sign the declaration would face imprisonment,
and/or the legal disbanding of his/her political party. Thus
threatened, the political leaders had little choice but to comply
with Slorc's demands. 
Leaders of the political parties were also forced to answer a
questionnaire compiled jointly by the Elections Commission, the
National Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and
the Ministry of Defence, in the presence of military
intelligence(MI) agents. In answering these questions the
politicians were instructed to refer to Burma's most prominent
opposition leader as Daw Suu Kyi, rather than her real name of Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi.(her father, Aung San, was Burma's greatest
independence hero and national leader until his assassination in
1947, and is highly-regarded by all Burmese people)
Most political parties were prohibited from any further political
activities following the unfavorable election returns. A certain
number of parties were abolished by the junta under the rationale
that those parties were not properly observing the instructions on
political activity as described in the orders of the Slorc
Multi-Party General Elections Commission. Some others were
abolished after accusations of involvement in anti-SLORC
activities.  At present, only ten political parties remain as legal
entities, namely the government-run NUP, a revamped version of the
NLD(National League for Democracy, originally Burma's most
important party, capturing the majority of parliamentary seats in
the 1990 election, but since stripped of its leaders, many of whom
have been imprisoned(including Aung San Su Kyi). The remain
fragment is led by retired general Aung Shwe), and eight political
parties representing ethnic minority peoples.  The minority groups
most successful and representative parties, like the Arakan
National League for Democracy, Mon National Democracy Party, and
Chin National Democracy Party, which had proven their popularity
among their respective ethnic peoples by finishing fourth, fifth,
and sixth in the results of the nation wide contest in 1990, were
all abolished by the junta. The reason given was that these parties
oppose the SLORC politically. Most of the leaders of these parties
were imprisoned. Other abolished parties include the youth-oriented
Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), and the AFPFL parties
led by Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein and Nay Chi Ba Swe, who are the daughters
of prominent Burmese political leaders U Kyaw Nyein and U Ba Swe.

Military Intelligence
The strength of the military intelligence had rapidly increased
under the SLORC. Its manpower is now comparable to that of the
regular army. Its agents are planted in every village and ward, on
every part of all streets, in every factory and civil service
department, in all schools, from secondary and middle schools to
the universities. Some of these agents earn monthly salaries while
others are hired for a daily wage. The village and ward level
administration offices, called Village/Ward Law and Order
Restoration Committees, are nests full of MI employees. They spend
their time documenting, with the help of their many civilian
informers, the activities of those persons on the anti-military
lists, and watch closely every movement of these persons. All
normal citizens are living within an atmosphere of constant fear,
constantly worrying about being called upon by the MI agents and
interrogated. For example, a prominent politician has said that he
feels safe only when he is with his family, and feels surrounded
and watched by enemies whenever he has to leave his house. 

Political Prisoners
The MI is even arresting civilians who have never been members of
a political party, under section 5(j) of the legal code, which had
in the past been used by the British colonial police to apprehend
pro-independence nationalist politicians. 
 A private teacher named U Htay Lwin, from South Okalapa Township
in Rangoon, was apprehended by the MI, and locked up in the no.2
cell of the Insein Annex Prison, after making a remark that
questioned why Slorc government officials were spending money and
time staging a boat race while the majority of the population was
struggling just to obtain their daily food, and many families had
had their homes destroyed and been forcibly relocated into Army
concentration camps and sattelite towns. 
A comedian named Chit Sayar, also from South Okalapa, was visiting
a health clinic when he overheard several persons grumbling about
the deteriorating conditions within the country. In response, he
made a quick joke, saying that it would not be too difficult to
solve the nation's problems if the government was handed over to
the winners of the 1990 elections. He was also  arrested
immediately, and put in the same cell as U Htay Lwin at Insein
In another incident, U Myint Swe, a retired principal of the State
Institute of Arts and Music, and his friends U Soe Myint, a retired
manager, Ahlone Ba Myint, an artist, and Tin Oo Lay, a cartoonist
from North Okalapa, were discussing the BBC report related to the
awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991
at a local tea shop when MI agents suddenly arrested all of them,
and sent them off to the same no.2 cell of the Insein Annex. 
Comedian Chit Sayar, artist Ahlone Ba Myint, and cartoonist Tin Oo
Lay were later officially sentenced by a Military Tribunal. 
Other political prisoners include the poets Min Lu and Tin Moe, who
were arrested for writing poetry criticizing the Slorc junta.  Min
Lu was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, while Tin Moe remains in
custody at present.  A popular comedian named Zarganar was also
imprisoned for his joking remarks against the junta. He was
transferred to Thayet Prison in central Burma. 

Deceived by the Police
Sometimes police officers would visit the detainees in prison, and
inform them that it would be better for them to confess to the
crimes they were accused of, since by giving their confessions at
the military tribunal trials they would gain leniency from the
judges, and suffer less than if they defended their innocence .
Some of the detainees, though they had committed no crime, gave
their confessions as instructed by the police officers.  As a
result, they were slapped with severe punishment, instead of
receiving lighter sentences as the deceptive officials had led them
to believe.
Conditions Inside Prisons
During the British colonial period in Burma, political prisoners
were distinguished from common convicts, and were given reasonable
food and medical care. But since 1976 such privileges were
abolished under a BSPP ruling, and all political prisoners were to
receive the same treatment as general convicts. MI agents were
assigned to manage the administration of the prisons at this time.
All the regular prison officials were afraid of the MI, and so
complied with every order issued by their MI superiors. Upon
arrival to the prison, any politician or student detainee was sent
directly into an isolated cell measuring 7' by 9'. These cells were
known as the "dark cells".  New detainees were kept cooped up in
these low-hung cells the whole day, barely able to stand up
straight, and with no where to defecate other than the floor they
must sleep on. Later, any prisoner who annoyed the authorities in
any way could be sent back to the dark cells as punishment. 
I was put into such a cell in 1978 for three months in succession.
Since the cell was shut tight all the time, no one could hear any
thing from outside. If a prisoner fell sick, no one would be able
to notice his sickness. No matter how long or loudly a inmate tried
to call out, the authorities wouldn't hear him.  We were only
allowed to take bath once a week, and the amount of water granted
was a mere two cups. These degrading dark cells still operated
today inside Burma's Insein Prison.
Some times as many as 7 to 10 persons would be crammed into a
single 7' by 9' cell. In such situations there was not enough space
to lie down for everyone, so we had to take turns sleeping. 
Under the British system, only those given life terms were locked
into the special "death" cells which had been specifically designed
and constructed for lifetime prisoners.  Under the recent SLORC
regime, however,  Nai Khin Maung, an elected Mon MP from
Kyaikmaraw, U Thu Wai, the leader of the Democracy party, Sammual
Phoe, a Christian preacher, and student leaders Myat San and Zaw
Min, who were arrested at Rangoon University in Dec. 1991 for
demonstrating to celebrate the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Daw
Aung San Su Kyi, have all been placed in these death cells designed
for terminal inmates. Other death cell inmates include, writer
Maung Thaw Ka, writer and movie director Maung Moe Thu, and Dr. Tin
Myo Win. All total there are now more than 80 prisoners housed in
death cells at Insein Prison.
One death cell inmate, the writer Maung Thaw Ka, had been suffering
from paralysis for a long time, but he continued to be kept in a
death cell anyway. During the time of his detention he learned that
both his wife and a son had died, which affected him deeply. His
condition deteriorated gradually, as he was never given proper
treatment. Eventually he succumbed, and passed away . 
U Tin Maung Win, an elected MP from Khayan township, and U Nyo Win,
a leader of the People's Progressive Party, also died in prison due
to lack of adequate health care and treatment.
Mahn Dar Weik, a prominent Karen leader, became gradually paralysed
from sleeping on a hard cement floor for years without any padding
or mattress under him. He was sent to the hospital only after
reaching a hopeless condition, and was even handcuffed to his
hospital bed, despite the fact that he was not able to move by
himself. He died at the hospital in the fourth week of August this
U Maung Ko, a prominent leader in the NLD and the labor movement,
was severely tortured and thrown into an isolated cell, where he
died in October of last year(1991). Subsequently, an elderly man
named U Pho Maung made a critical remark about the brutal death of
U Maung Ko.  U Pho Maung, a leading member of the democratic party
led by retired Gen. U Aung Gyi, was then arrested also, and given
5 years imprisonment by a military tribunal as a result. 
The most common cause of death in the Insein Prison is dysentery.
Many have succumbed to this easily preventable health menace.  For
example, human waste has been used as fertilizer for growing
vegetables inside the prison. This has helped to spread dysentery
among the prisoners.  Another reason for the rapid spread of the
disease is the dirty plates provided inmates by the prison
authorities.  The prisoner's plates are simply never washed
sufficiently, a seemingly basic task. 
The second most common cause of death stems from paralysis. Since
the political prisoners have to sleep on cement floors without any
cloth or mat under them, many prisoners, especially the elderly,
have suffered terribly as a result, and eventually died. One time
while I was a prisoner, my arm became numb. I approached a prison
guard to request some medicine which would be suitable to rub on my
arm, but the guard just scolded me and went away. This is an
example of the care that is provided for serious health problems
inside the prison.
The quality of food served in the prison is also terrible.
Breakfast consists only of a fish sauce of the poorest quality,
served around noon. For dinner the offering is a few pieces of
boiled vegetables without any protein supplement. Malnourishment
stemming from lack of an adequate diet causes many prisoners to be 
vulnerable to various diseases. 
Occasionally, the several foreign Thai prisoners in Insein Prison,
who were supplied with better food by Thai embassy officials in
Rangoon from time to time, would share their bounty with us. 
Since the quality of prison food is so terrible, many of the
prisoners desire to be sentenced as soon as possible, so that their
families could then send them some private food that was more
suitable for eating. Family members were allowed to send some food
and a few clothes, after the prisoner was officially sentenced. In
this way many political prisoners end up covering a lot of their
own expenses while serving their time. 
There is a business man in the main Insein prison. He is Than Tun,
the owner of Yadana guest house. He tried to smuggle a ruby worth
300 million kyat, as estimated by the SLORC officials, to Thailand
in collaboration with six military officers, one of them being a
Lt. Colonel.  When the operation was discovered, Than Tun and his
wife were sentenced to 25 years each, while the six military
officers were released, and never charged. 

Divide and rule
The prison officials encouraged fighting and division among the
prisoners by rewarding those who emerged victorious, making  their
efforts worthwhile. One time a prisoner from Twantay named Koyin
Lay, and another young man named Thar Thar of Rangoon, were set to
fight against each other by the prison officials. There also was a
fight arranged between a young man called Shan Lay, and another man
named Cross, from Letpadan. In this way the prison officers created
division among the prisoners, and appointed the winners of such
fights as their assistants, using them to suppress and torture
others, and giving them special privileges.

A young man named Kyaw Nyein, who served as a representative for
election candidate U Hla Than of Coco Island constituency, was
tortured by the MI at its no. 7 MI head quarters. He was so
severely tortured that when he was transferred to the Insein prison
he was in a grave condition. A prison guard at this time, named Soe
Myint, entered his cell and beat Kyaw Nyein without any relevant
reason. Kyaw Nyein totally lost control of his mind at this point,
and today he still remains a mad man. Despite this, the military
tribunal decided to continue to punish Kyaw Nyein with
Another incident of torture was inflicted upon a young man from
Prome named Htoon Wanna, a leader of the Democratic Party for New
Society. This prisoner frequently taken from his cell and beaten
many times by a prison guard named Myint Aung. 
On December 10th and 11th of last year, students demonstrated  to
celebrate the awarding of Nobel Peace Prize to Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi. As a result about 200 students were arrested and sent to the
Insein prison. A group of MI agents led by Major Aung Kyi
interrogated the students in the prison. When they weren't
satisfied with the answers, the MI thugs ordered students to parch
themselves in the sun for hours, until the students would come up
with the answers which the MI wanted. Their leaders Myat San, Zaw
Min, and Ko Ko Gyi were eventually given life sentences.
There also exists in Insein Prison a torture cell known as  the
Alsatian cell, where a pack of alsatians are kept under special
care. When a person is considered to be too stubborn by the prison
officials, he would be sent to that cell and tortured there. One of
the torture methods consisted of forcing the prisoner to crawl on 
a floor covered with prickly pieces of broken bricks. When a person
is crawling in such a way he would certainly come to a halt after
crawling for a few meters, because his knees and legs would begin
to bleed painfully. However, the prisoner would have no choice but
to go on since he would be closely followed by alsatians ready to
attack him if he came within their reach. One student leader named
Muang Maung Oo, who had been in charge of security of Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi's house, was tortured in this way. 
Other torture techniques used by the MI include ordering prisoners
to "ride the helicopter", and "drive the motor bike", play
topsy-turvy, dripping water drops for prolonged periods on a
prisoner's head, burning the chest and male testicles with a
lighted cigarette, giving electric shocks to all parts of the body
etc.. These practices have become routine rituals, designed to
extract confessions from the prisoners. Often the youth suffer the
most from these tactics.   

When I last came into the Insein prison, for the third visit of my
life, there were about 8,000 men and 2,000 women inmates. Most of
the women prisoners were related to prostitution services.
Everybody could see the four to five hundred men and women gathered
in front of Kyauktadar Police station, or on the dark side walks
between the Papawin Cinema and Sule Park in the late afternoons,
bargaining for their night business. But the authorities had a
blind eyes on them.

Prison Hospital
There is a prison hospital inside Insein Prison. But to get
permission to be admitted to the hospital is very difficult.
Convicts need to bribe the prison officers , usually from 3,000 to
5,000 kyats, just to get receive basic health care.

The prisoners who were related to drug trafficking or drug abuse
were still active inside the prison. When they got a chance to meet
their friends from outside during their trials or by bribing the
prison officials, they managed to smuggle drugs into the prison and
thus continued their drug abuse. The authorities  pretended to
ignore such cases, but they are actually collaborating with the
outside traffickers and extracting side incomes from them.  The
drug situation became so ugly that in August of this year, the
Minister for Home Affairs Lt. Gen. Phone Myint, had to assemble all
the police officers and warned them of the seriousness of the

Homosexual activities
Homosexuality is also popular in the Insein prison. Young and
handsome men were most susceptible to intimidation and pressure
from convicts serving long term imprisonment. This is another issue
which the authorities prefer to ignore.

One of the reasons why the prisons are so crowded is the 
indiscriminate arrests of pro-democracy activists, and their
subsequent sentencing to disproportionally long prison terms.
Another major factor stems from social causes. The soaring rise in
commodity prices creates grievous repercussions among the people,
driving many to commit various crimes. The judges are then eager 
to punish these petty and desperate criminals unreasonably. The
civil courts the judges dare not defy the military, and so feel
pressure to sentence civilians to harsh punishments comparable to
those of the military tribunal's decisions. The judges often do not
even permit bail to accused individuals, even though they deserve
The case of a man named Ko Win Maung of Tharawaddy deserves special
attention. During the uprising he was involved in occupying the
Junta's offices. The authorities accused him of committing various
crimes, and he was sentenced for 55 years imprisonment. He was
transferred to Insein prison where he was hurled into the no.1 cell
of the main prison, where I was also was imprisoned at that time. 
>From prisoner to porter
To smuggle even a small amount of money into the prison is very
difficult. Prisoners used to roll the currency up inside plastics,
swallow it, and then retrieve the cash the next day from their own
human waste product. Ironically, smuggling a large sum of money in
is much easier. You only need to use some extra money to bribe the
authorities. Money often can decide a prisoner's condition. If he
wants to be included in a group to be sent to a work camp, or if he
wants to be left out of a working group to be sent somewhere, he
can bribe the authorities to achieve his wishes. If a prisoner is
so poor that he cannot afford to bribe the prison officials, he
often will be sent out as a porter for the military. Even those who
are very near to end their prison terms are handed over to the
military to be used as porters. The prison authorities issue a
warrant which is a release order for the prisoner, but instead of
giving it to the person concerned, they hand it over to the
military officials who will take charge of both the order and the
prisoner from that time on. When a prisoner is sent out as a
porter, his fate depends on his ability to escape or on mere luck.
If not, he will likely be killed in battle, or by a land mine, or
by the army soldiers themselves when he is no longer useful for the
operation. Instead of calling it a release warrant, prisoners used
to call the porter warrant a ticket to travel to hell.  

Those released
Now the SLORC is loudly saying that they have released hundreds of
political prisoners in accordance with the order 11/92. But they
have not released any prominent leaders such as U Tin Oo, U Kyi
Maung, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Retired General U Tin Oo, who has
extracted rheumatism, and U Win Tin, who is suffering from gastric
ulcer, are both in dangerous health situations as a result of their
continuing imprisonment. 
Most of the released persons are not politicians but ordinary
convicts. A few of the actual politicians who have been released
are under constant watch, and are vulnerable to rearrest any time 
the junta thinks it necessary.

Burma Issues
PO Box 1076, Silom Post Office
Bangkok 10504 Thailand

phone: 662 234 6674

Burma Issues (formerly Burma Rights Movement for Action,          
B.U.R.M.A.) is a Bangkok-based non-governmental organization that
monitors events in Burma with a focus on human rights, ethnic
minorities and the ongoing civil war.