Torture, Abuse Common in Burma’s Prisons

"Death Row in Insein Prison" by Minn Mone

Burma’s military appear to have completed their brutal crackdown against Buddhist monks and protesters, with diplomats saying the death toll far exceeds the nine admitted by the regime, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, flung into prisons. What will become of them? If the experience of political prisoners from past attempts to face down the military is any judge, then the future is grim.

During his interrogation, for instance, Thet Oo says he was deprived of food for three days and beaten so savagely that he suffered permanent hearing loss. His friend and fellow activist Bo Kyi was beaten every day for two weeks after prison guards found a page from a magazine that had been smuggled into his cell.

The two now live in relative safety in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, where they are active in the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP. Both spent years in prison for their opposition to Burma’s military government.

Thet Oo, 45, knows all about the hardships faced by political prisoners in Burma’s network of prisons, labor camps and interrogation centers. A cheerful, soft-spoken man who wears a hearing aid as a result of the beatings he received and walks with a limp left by childhood polio, he quietly recalled his 12 years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison. He was arrested in 1993 for involvement with a banned pro-democracy group, was tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He says there were at least four people to a single small cell in the jail’s compound for political prisoners. The inmates received two basic, hardly adequate meals a day, and were allowed only a small ration of water to wash with.

At one point, Thet Oo was placed in shackles for a month. He and his colleagues kept themselves busy by studying English, playing chess, making handicrafts and meditating, he said. Sometimes friends and family members brought messages to him by rolling them in the filter of a cheroot. Thet Oo was released in 2005; he escaped to Mae Sot three months ago.

The assistance association has around 100 members here, with others living abroad. It supports current and former political prisoners by providing them with food and medicine. It also runs a small museum in Mae Sot, which is designed to resemble a prison cell and contains information on political prisoners in Burma and conditions inside the jails.

There are pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations that were crushed by the regime and tributes to serving political prisoners and those who have died in prison. Other exhibits include photos and illustrations of torture methods.

The group has produced a harrowing report on the use of torture in Burma. It says beatings, electric shocks, sexual abuse of both men and women, solitary confinement and deprivation of food, water and sleep are all common.

Prisoners are often ordered to assume certain postures while being beaten, or hold them until they collapse. In one common position, prisoners must place their hands behind their heads and lean forward on the balls of their feet. Pins are then placed underneath their raised feet.

Sometimes they are ordered to crouch as if riding a motorbike, or perform a twisted version of a traditional dance, in which they must crawl over gravel on their knees and elbows, and sing. If they do not sing smoothly or cannot crawl, they are whipped with bamboo batons while other prisoners watch.

One former political prisoner described how during his interrogation, he was stripped and made to assume a similar position. Four drunken guards then found a large dog, made it mount his back, and used their hands to arouse its penis. They then placed the dog’s penis against the man’s anus. “I can forgive my torturers for everything but the sexual abuse,” said the victim. “No religion permits such an act. It has destroyed my self-esteem, my dignity.”

Some political prisoners have been told they are to be released and taken to the prison gate, only to be re-arrested and turned back around.

There are 43 major prisons in Burma, the group says, over 20 of which house political prisoners. There are 32 known labor camps and many interrogation centers.

Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the AAPP, says 134 political prisoners have died in custody, usually due to torture, poor diet and inadequate healthcare. Those who survive often suffer mental and physical problems after their release.

Bo Kyi, 42, spent two terms in prison, a total of seven years and three months. He has been living in exile in Mae Sot since 1999. Like Thet Oo, he says he survived by keeping himself busy. He taught English to other prisoners, and says the inmates sometimes wrote poems and articles on the concrete floor with a piece of brick.

The AAPP’s museum, which has been open for almost six years, is not well known but attracts a number of visitors, often NGO staff and volunteers working with refugees along the border. Bo Kyi wants people to visit and find out more about the plight of political prisoners, but he is reluctant to advertise for fear of upsetting the Thai authorities in this politically-sensitive border area. Many former political prisoners live in exile in Thailand without the necessary papers, and they are constantly monitored by Thai security officials.

Living the exile’s life, Bo Kyi is cautiously optimistic about recent events. “It may be tomorrow, it may be next month, it may be 10 years,” he said. “We have to do our best.”