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NEWS- Burma-Human Rights: Thais Tel

Burma-Human Rights: Thais Tell Tales of Torture in Burma Prison

               Inter Press Service

               BANGKOK, (Nov. 19) IPS - For more than a week
               now, Thai fishermen have recounted firsthand the
               horrors of Burma's most notorious prison, where
               several of the country's opposition political figures
               to the junta have perished. 

               The fishermen were released after the intervention
               of Thailand's army commander-in-chief General
               Chetta Thanajaro during a Nov. 6 official visit to
               Rangoon and an appeal to junta secretary-general,
               Khin Nyunt. 

               The Thai pleas resulted in 98 prisoners being
               returned to Bangkok on Nov. 11, after being
               pardoned by the junta, the State Law and Order
               Restoration Council (SLORC). 

               In graphic detail, the 95 men and three women
               spoke of their experiences. Many of them were held
               at the infamous Insein Prison in Rangoon, where
               conditions are described as "extremely harsh."
               Many were held for illegal fishing or logging
               activities over the border. 

               The poor state of their health was a reminder not
               just of the grim conditions at Insein, but reports of
               human rights abuses there. Flown back to Bangkok
               on a Royal Thai Air Force C-130, several needed
               wheel chairs because they were too weak to walk. 

               "I will never return to work as a fisherman again,
               never in Burmese waters. That was the worst
               experience of my life," said 28-year-old Phem
               Phimphu from the northern province of Roi Et. 

               "Although I have never been imprisoned in Thailand,
               I've heard that they at least get proper food, live in
               clean rooms and can go to the toilet any time," he
               told reporters. 

               Other prisoners came back with skin diseass,
               malnutrition, tuberculosis, and even the HIV virus.
               Thai Ministry of Public Health officials said that of
               the prisoners freed, only 28 were in good health. 

               Their plight adds weight to official human rights
               reports of prison conditions described by a U.S.
               report as "extremely harsh." 

               Arrests of political prisoners linked to opposition
               leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for
               Democracy (NLD) are often arbitrary, with
               sentences of seven years for possession of
               "subversive" literature not uncommon. 

               Several NLD members have perished in custody,
               including Leo Nichols, a friend of Suu Kyi who was
               arrested in April 1996 for possession of
               "unauthorized telephone" and fax machines and
               sentenced to three years in jail. 

               Nichols suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on June 22
               last year in custody and died later in Rangoon
               General Hospital. Reports said the prison's "harsh
               treatment almost certainly hastened his death." 

               The Thai fishers said that often, up to 100 people
               are crammed into poorly-ventilated narrow cells with
               few windows. 

               "The room was very stuffy and at night we had to
               sleep sideways in four rows, head to head and feet
               to feet," said Phem, adding dust and dirt was

               "Many of us suffered and we couldn't go to the toilet
               but had to use tins, even when we were vomiting,"
               said Phem, who spent eight months in jail. 

               For 33-year-old Berm Mana-ngam from Khon Kaen
               in northeastern Thailand, the food was the same
               every day: soup, soybean curry, and rice. "I only
               ate my food when I was really hungry because often
               I would find worms and all sorts of things in the
               soup," he said. 

               "The water we got to drink was often green," he
               added. He served 20 months in prison for fishing
               illegally in Burmese waters. 

               He said when receiving vaccines, "four to five
               people would sit at their desks with injections and
               we had to line up in rows. They injected us with the
               same needles one after another." 

               There are still some 100 Thais held in Burmese
               prisons and many of the returned prisoners
               expressed fears for the fate of their colleagues. 

               As fishing stocks have been depleted in Thai
               waters, Thai vessels have ventured throughout
               Southeast Asian and even to Irian Jaya and Papua
               New Guinea. But the price the fishermen pay for
               their illegal activities is often a visit to what other
               prisoners, as well political detainees at Insein, call
               "hell on earth." 

               "Initially, when I was told that I had been sentenced
               to five years, I felt like killing myself. The conditions
               were really bad...it's like living in another world,"
               Berm said. 

               He said he could not understand why Burma treated
               its prisoners so severely for offenses judged as
               being less than criminal. He spoke of how he was
               overcome by a sense of helplessness, unable to
               even write to his wife and two young children. 

               Critics say there is little sign of a change of heart
               from the Burmese government, even with last
               week's change in the name of the junta to the
               benign-sounding State Peace and Development
               Council. Last week, state-run Burmese radio
               announced the country had replaced the 21-member
               SLORC junta with a new, 19-member group.