Freed Artists Describe Prison Conditions in Burma

2007-10-23
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BANGKOK—Two prominent Burmese entertainers have described savage beatings, nighttime interrogations, and gross neglect at Burma’s notorious Insein Prison following a deadly crackdown on opposition protesters in September.

U Ye Lwin, 60, plays guitar, sings, and writes music for the well-known Burmese band, Myizzima Hlaing. He was arrested Sept. 27 as he sat on the main Pansodan road in the country’s former capital, Rangoon, praying and protesting alongside monks and members of the public.

During his weeks in Insein, he reported seeing several prominent members of the 1988 student dissident generation—including Min Ko Naing, Ko Jimmy, Min Zeya, and Ko Htay Kyweh—but he said he was unable to talk to them as they were being held in isolation.

“Min Ko Naing and I were staying there upstairs and downstairs from each other. We were not allowed to talk. I saw them when I went to wash my face and they washed their faces individually,” U Ye Lwin told RFA’s Burmese service.

“They were smiling and looked healthy. They were even giving me encouragement. I saw Min Ko Naing, Jimmy, and Min Zeya. Later, I saw Ko Htay Kyweh. As far as I saw, those who were injured were treated.”

The students were beaten during the interrogations. People were beaten when they [the authorities] couldn’t get the answers they wanted. There were monks who had already sustained injuries when they came. The monks were interrogated separately.

U Ye Lwin said monks were also kept in isolation in Insein Prison, and he reported seeing many university students. He said his status as a well-known musician appeared to protect him from interrogation, although the students were repeatedly summoned and tortured by the prison authorities.

“The students were beaten during the interrogations. People were beaten when they [the authorities] couldn’t get the answers they wanted. There were monks who had already sustained injuries when they came. The monks were interrogated separately,” he said.

Treatment only for severe injuries

He added that those in Insein with gunshot wounds and other severe injuries were given medical treatment, but those with intestinal problems, headaches, and other minor complaints were mostly ignored.

Conditions were far worse in detention facilities at the former Government Technical Institute, where U Ye Lwin was initially held. There, he said, more than 600 people were crowded in a small room, without space to lie down, lifting their knees to sleep on the cement floor for three days in a row.

Detainees were given only a sip of water a day and were allowed to urinate only once a day, U Ye Lwin said. Only three days later was a temporary latrine built. No hand-washing facilities were provided at meals, which are traditionally taken without utensils.

U Ye Lwin said many monks, including two monks in their 70s, were also kept in isolation. Some had been disrobed.

Zagana, meanwhile, 47 and a popular comedian, was imprisoned for about 20 days, also spending part of that time in Insein. He was unexpectedly released, after being told that he was going to be transferred to another prison.

There are several detainees there with serious health problems, including the ‘88 Generation student leader Hla Myo Naung, who was detained Oct. 10 while seeking medical assistance for a ruptured cornea, who hasn’t been receiving medical care and may lose vision in the eye.

Zagana was arrested Sept. 26 after visiting Rangoon's Shwedagon pagoda to give food and water to protesting monks. He came home in his prison uniform and saved a plastic spoon and a bowl as souvenirs of his stay, during which he contracted pneumonia, he told RFA.

“I started having pneumonia, and I was in trouble,” Zagana said. “I didn’t think I was going to be released. I was kept with the military dogs. How rude and wicked. I was there with 30 dogs.”

“I caught a cold because it had a cement floor. It wasn’t suitable for sleeping. From there, they sent me to an inner room in unit five, to a special room. It was a bit better there. It’s nice in that special room. We can take a bath. So I caught a cold and had pneumonia,” Zagana said.

Monks, students still held

Zagana is known in much of Burma for satirical productions such as “The Beggars’ National Convention,” a parody of the regime’s National Convention during which it has promised to discuss a “road map” to democracy with the opposition.

While in Insein, U Ye Lwin said he witnessed the death of a mentally ill homeless person dragged in by the authorities during the crackdown on weeks of anti-government protests, the biggest challenge to the junta’s rule since 1988.

“Some of them were alcoholic and since they couldn’t get alcohol, they lost their minds. One died right in front of me. He had to sleep on the cement floor and he was mentally ill and people didn’t want to be near him. He was dead in the morning,” U Ye Lwin said.

Sources have told RFA’s Burmese service three people died at the GTI interrogation center after being forced to spend a night lying on a concrete floor.

Most of those being released were ordinary citizens, while monks, students, and activists remained in custody. Both U Ye Lwin and Zagana vowed to continue their nonviolent opposition to the government.

“The lives of youths here have been destroyed. They are in prison, and some have died,” Zagana said. “In the prison, there were some monks with gunshot wounds on their backs. Also, I saw old monks around the age of 72 who got kicked in the ribs, and so they were leaning on one side.”

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, said several political detainees held at Insein suffer from serious health conditions, according to detainees who have been released.

“Most of the ‘politicals’ arrested in Rangoon are being kept at cell blocks 1 and 2 of Insein Prison, which of course is notorious for torturing people,” she said.

“There are several detainees there with serious health problems, including the ‘88 Generation student leader Hla Myo Naung, who was detained Oct. 10 while seeking medical assistance for a ruptured cornea, who hasn’t been receiving medical care and may lose vision in the eye,” Richardson added.

Grave abuses reported

In its 2006 report on human rights conditions worldwide, the U.S. State Department sharply criticized the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) for numerous and grave abuses.

In December 2005, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—Burma (AAPPB) released a report on the "brutal and systematic" torture that the government inflicted on political prisoners.

The AAPPB, citing 35 former political prisoners, detailed physical, psychological, and sexual abuse inflicted by authorities on dissidents.

Methods of torture were said to include: severe beatings, repeated electric shock, burning with cigarettes and lighters, prolonged restriction of movement for up to several months using rope and shackles around the neck and ankles, forcing prisoners to walk or crawl on sharp stones, metal, and glass, and threatening female prisoners with rape.

Original reporting by Ko Nyo for RFA’s Burmese service. Translations by Than Than Win. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Additional reporting in English by Richard Finney. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

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