Burma’s Hidden Heroes, Burma’s Shame

On 31 May this year U Hla Khin died in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison. He was a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) and the latest NLD member to die in government custody. ‘He was found to have committed suicide by hanging himself with his longyi (sarong) in his cell room where he was sharing with a cell mate who was asleep during that time,’ said the Government of Burma (now known as Myanmar) on their website on 2 June.

Burma has been ruled by the military since a coup d’état in 1962. In 1988 there was a popular uprising of the Burmese people. The military’s response to the calls for democracy was to kill thousands of pro-democracy supporters and activists, and a new military junta seized power.

The United Nations, human rights organisations and the United States frequently report and condemn the Burmese government’s role in the deaths of its political prisoners. Australia also repeatedly condemns Burma’s human rights practices.

In 1997 Amnesty International reported that:
In November 1995 twenty-nine political prisoners, many of them NLD leaders, were placed in tiny cells in Insein Prison meant to house military dogs, and deprived of blankets and sufficient food and water. They received this treatment because they had attempted to send information about poor prison conditions to the United Nations. Two of them have subsequently died in custody.

Amnesty International documented at least twenty cases of deaths in custody since the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC (the Burmese government) came to power in 1988. But in reality many more than those documented by international organisations have died. [On advice from Washington-based management consultant firms SLORC has now changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council, to help in lobbying Western governments. Ed.]

Amnesty International believes that most of the deaths are caused by ill-treatment or lack of proper medical care. Such was the case with U Tin Shwe, a 67-year-old lawyer, prominent writer and member of the NLD central committee. U Tin Shwe was one of the founding members of the NLD and was imprisoned for demanding that parliament be convened after the NLD landslide victory in the 1990 general elections. When he was arrested in late 1990 he was reported to be in good health.

Amnesty International said that by April 1997 he was suffering from a serious heart condition. His family asked the authorities if he could receive treatment at Yangon General Hospital but the SLORC refused their request. The chairman of the NLD wrote to the Burmese government calling for U Tin Shwe to receive proper treatment. U Tin Shwe died from a heart attack on 8 June 1997 in Insein Prison.

In 1996 Leo Nichols, the honorary consul for Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland, died in Insein Prison within two months of his arrest. He was imprisoned ‘for operating unregistered telephone and facsimile lines from his home’, said Amnesty International. He was Aung San Suu Kyi’s godfather. He also has family in Australia and had ‘a long-standing and warm relationship with the Australian Embassy in Rangoon’, said the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Alexander Downer, upon news of his death.
Conditions at Insein Jail are notoriously bad and Mr Nichols was an elderly man not in the best of health. The conditions of his incarceration may well have contributed to his death. He was arrested in April of this year [1996] for clearly political reasons, and on 23 May was sentenced to a three-year jail term. Mr Nichols’ death once again focuses our attention on the brutal practices of the SLORC. The political nature of his arrest, the harshness of his sentence and the conditions of his incarceration lead me to renew calls for the government of Burma to reform its human rights practices.

In a book titled Tortured Voices: Personal Accounts of Burma’s Interrogation Centres, Moe Aye, a former political prisoner, details Mr Nichols mistreatment in Insein. Moe Aye was in Insein at the same time as Mr Nichols. He said that Mr Nichols suffered from diabetes and dysentery and could not eat the prison food. He said the authorities repeatedly refused requests for basic medical care for Mr Nichols and that he was interrogated many times.

One day we saw him taken away by MIS [Military Intelligence Service] officers in a truck carrying empty rice pots. As usual, there was a hood over his head. When he failed to return after a few days we began to get very worried. Four days later he finally showed up with the MIS officers. We noticed that his legs were swollen and his face was all puffed up. A few days after his return, the MIS took Mr Nichols away again with a hood over his head. That was the last time we saw him.

About a week later Moe Aye heard that Mr Nichols had died. ‘All that we were told was that he was forced to choose the path in which there was no way back,’ he said. At the time Reuters reported that a government-controlled newspaper in Burma said that Leo Nichols was an ‘unimportant crook’ who met his due fate. Mr Nichols’ family are using Moe Aye’s account as evidence in a law suit against the Burmese government.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra said that conditions in Insein Prison would not have changed since 1996. ‘Conditions in Insein are very poor, especially for political prisoners.’ Burma’s prison population increased dramatically between 1988 and 1993. According to the Burmese government’s figures, the country’s prison population more than doubled during this period. But the number of people in government custody is much higher. Many people are detained as ‘guests’ of the government at what the government calls ‘guesthouses.’

A resident of Melbourne knows well the methods of the Military Intelligence Service. Tin Win Aung remembers the fear he felt each time the hood was put over his head. He remembers not being allowed to sleep for days, the endless questioning, the endless beatings, the unbearable pain and drifting in and out of consciousness. He remembers feeling as though his arms were detached from his body when he was strung up and left hanging by his arms from the ceiling. He remembers being beaten while he hung there. He remembers overhearing one of his torturer’s saying ‘this guy’s in bad shape – he might die’ and wishing for that death so that he could escape the pain.

Tin Win Aung was tortured over a number of days by the Military Intelligence Service following his arrest in Burma in 1993. He was then imprisoned in Insein Prison because of the false confession he was forced to sign during his interrogation. He is a student and a pro-democracy activist. He spent almost four years in Burmese prisons and nine months in a Thai detention centre due to his political beliefs and activities.

The first nine months of Tin Win Aung’s incarceration at Insein was spent with two other students in a small room approximately eight feet square. They were let out of that room once a day for fifteen to thirty minutes to bathe and walk. Then he was transferred to a room that housed 150 people. In this part of the prison he was required to farm, to grow vegetables. In response to a suggestion that he had more freedom he said, ‘No, I have the chance to talk to other people but I can do nothing – the same situation, no paper, cannot talk about politics, there are spies and they are always watching people’.

Visitors are allowed, but there is no privacy and strict rules apply. Their conversation is taped, they talk through wire, only family members can visit and they are only allowed to talk about family and health matters. This is the only time a political prisoner can communicate with their family – no letters are allowed. Tin Win Aung’s sisters used to visit him but he asked them not to:

Even though they came to visit me they said nothing, just cry, never talk to me, so I told them not come and visit me. So my mother is the only one who came and supported me.

At Insein Tin Win Aung actively lobbied for better prison conditions. In 1996 he and thirty-seven other agitators for better prison conditions were moved to Myangyan Prison in Central Burma, a place that experiences temperature extremes. The day he arrived he was placed in a small dark windowless room – pitch black – with a bucket, one sarong and instructed not to speak.

Every morning they come in and they ask you the question how are you, do you have enough … but you can’t say anything, if you say anything that’s a big problem.

He was not given enough food to eat but each time he asked for more food he was beaten. Days later he was given another sarong and two blankets. Tin Win Aung lived in this room alone until his release fifteen months later. During this time some of the other prisoners held in the same conditions died or went insane.

He was kept in a partitioned room eight foot by twelve foot. He had a bucket to use as a toilet and water for drinking but not for washing. ‘Sometimes they allow us to wash – two weeks at a time, something like that.’ He draws a picture and explains that he was locked in half of that room most of the time. There was an inner wall and door. The inner door would be unlocked for about five and a half hours each day and during that five and a half hours he had to polish iron bars with a brick.

The room has iron bars and they give you small pieces of bricks and ask you to polish them. Not from outside, from inside. If you get tired from the right, use the left hand. Your iron bar must be bright as steel, as stainless steel.

Now Tin Win Aung lives in Melbourne and feels safe for the first time in his life. But he still bears the scars of his experiences, physically and mentally. One side of his body goes numb and his back aches when it is cold. As part of his English studies at Swinburne University of Technology he attends a computing class but he always has to leave before it finishes – he goes numb from the air conditioning. And mentally, he knows he is not well.

I know myself that something is wrong because I can’t concentrate. I find it difficult to study. I always have to remind myself that I am studying.

Although he is still recovering and finds it difficult to talk about his prison and interrogation experiences he wants his and his fellow prisoners’ stories told. ‘Not only Aung San Suu Kyi, others have sacrificed their lives.’ Whilst in Myangyan Prison he heard that a close friend had been found dead in his cell and after his release he confirmed that his friend had died in Myangyan.

Even though it is hard for me, I want people to know the real situation of our country, the feelings of our people. I want the people of the world to know. What the Burmese people are feeling in their heart is the same feeling in the world because we are all human beings, in terms of looking at different things, we are all humans.

But the torture, the ill-treatment and deaths in custody of political prisoners continues. ‘On October 21 [1998], one NLD detainee, 52-year-old U Aung Min, died in detention during what the Government described as ‘exchanges of views.’ The Government attributed his death to a fast spreading cancer; it did not release an autopsy report,’ said the US State Department in their recent report to Congress on Burma’s human rights practices. The report also noted ‘credible reports that at least a few political prisoners or detainees were denied adequate medical care. Some of these prisoners died in detention as a result. On August 7, Member of Parliament-elect U Than Win died while serving an 11-year sentence.’

Human Rights Watch reported the deaths of three other political prisoners in 1998. ‘Three well-known detainees were reported to have died in custody during the year, their deaths almost certainly exacerbated by prison conditions or ill-treatment: Aung Kyaw Moe, a student leader, Thein Tin, an NLD Rangoon division organiser, and Saw Win, an NLD parliamentarian.’

Whilst in Insein Prison Tin Win Aung met Saw Win and a number of other NLD members that were elected to parliament in Burma’s 1990 general election. The NLD is Burma’s most popular opposition party and won more than 80 per cent of the seats contested. However, the military regime has not allowed parliament to be convened. Last year the NLD demanded that parliament be convened and since then the regime has intensified its repression of pro-democracy activists and supporters.

Of the 392 NLD members that were elected to parliament in 1990, 29 are now dead. According to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (the Burma Government in Exile) 27 of these 29 NLD members died in government custody. 103 NLD Members of Parliament are believed to be still in government custody.

As recently as April 23 this year the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution that deplores the Burmese Government’s ‘wide disrespect of the rule of law, including increasing numbers of arbitrary and politically motivated arrests and detentions, detentions without trial, sometimes without the knowledge of the families of detainees, and the abuse of the judicial process, including trial of detainees in secrecy without proper legal representation, and the inhuman treatment of prisoners, leading to illness and deaths in custody, as reported by the [UN] Special Rapporteur.’

The US State Department and Amnesty International believe that there are at least 1000 political prisoners in Burma. However, many believe the number to be more like 3,000. Following the news of the recent death of U Hla Khin, Amnesty International repeated their call for the deaths in custody to stop.
Amnesty International calls for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in Burma and urges the authorities to bring prison conditions in line with international standards, halt unlawful killings and to cease harassment of opposition members.

The circumstances of U Hla Khin’s death, as reported by the Burmese government, are suspect. Political prisoners in Insein do not have access to alcohol, are watched closely and have little opportunity to commit suicide. The government claims that U Hla Khin hanged himself and that his death is alcohol-related. Dr Sein Win, Prime Minister of the Burma Government in Exile (NCGUB) said, ‘too many people die in the regime’s prisons and all the authorities can do is offer incredible explanations. We call on the regime to account for why so many political prisoners die in its jails and seek the assistance of the international community in bringing to justice those responsible.’

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