Burma Crackdown Goes on Amid Fears for Women in Custody

2007-10-17
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Fears are growing that food aid to Burma could be disrupted by the current crackdown. Officials in Mae La refugee camp along the Thai border fear a sharp rise in the number of those fleeing the country. Video: AFP >> Watch the video

BANGKOK—Two prominent female Burmese dissidents are voicing special concern over the junta’s treatment of women in custody, as the authorities pursue ever-greater numbers of people in connection with nationwide protests in September.

Both Ma Mie Mie [Ma Thin Thin Aye] and Ma Nilar Thein, who served seven and nine years respectively in Burmese prisons for opposing the junta, have described sexual harassment and abuse of women in Burmese jails. Ma Mie Mie was arrested last week, and Ma Nilar Thein is now in hiding. A third prominent female dissident, Thet Thet Aung, is also in hiding, although authorities have arrested her mother and mother-in-law.

“I am very sad because my friend Mie Mie [Ma Thin Thin Aye] was arrested like this. I am especially concerned for her because I read the military authorities’ vengeful writings in the newspapers about [her],” Ma Nilar Thein, who spent nine years in Thayawaddy prison, some of them with Mie Mie, told RFA’s Burmese service.

“She was arrested under these circumstances, so I’m especially concerned for her health and safety,” Ma Nilar Thein, who is now in hiding, said. “At the Thayawaddy prison, under the prison chief, U Win Myint, prisoners sentenced for rape were kept next to the women’s building.”

“Prison staff and these prisoners would come and peep at us while we took our baths. We were in prison, defenseless, and without any security. When we reported this to the prison chief, we were reprimanded,” she said.

“Only when the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] came did we feel secure because of the rules laid down by the United Nations…and given by the ICRC. Now we are concerned for the safety of the women in various prisons because international organizations such as the ICRC cannot go there. Therefore we are extremely concerned,” she said, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Young women swept into custody

Ma Mie Mie, now 35, was first detained in March 1989, after taking part as a 10th-grader in the 1988 student uprising. She was released in June 1989 and began traveling in 1990 on behalf of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in its election campaign.

The police abuse their power and there are incidents in which young women detainees are harassed or sexually abused by them. I have witnessed some of the abuses myself. I am therefore really concerned about the safety of the young women detainees.

She passed her university matriculation exams and married NLD youth member Ko Hla Moe in June 1990; they have a daughter and a son. She was arrested again for her political activities and sentenced in 1996 to seven years in jail, serving in both Insein and Thayawaddy prisons. She was freed in 2003.

Before her arrest last week, Mie Mie told Amnesty International she believed some 4,000 monks and civilians remained in detention in connection with nationwide anti-government protests in September. The detainees “have no extra clean clothes to change while in detention so they have no choice but to continue to wear dirty, smelly clothes for days. I have learned that food given to pregnant women and nuns is barely enough for them to survive,” Amnesty International quoted Mie Mie as saying.

“Many young women have been picked up on the streets by the authorities without the knowledge of their families. At police stations or detention centers, the authorities do not differentiate between political detainees and ordinary criminals,” Mie Mie was quoted as saying.

“The police abuse their power and there are incidents in which young women detainees are harassed or sexually abused by them. I have witnessed some of the abuses myself. I am therefore really concerned about the safety of the young women detainees."

Another dissident's relatives held

“Likewise, the families of these young women detainees are extremely worried about their situation in detention centers. I would therefore like to see inspection of detention centers as soon as possible and that necessary assistance be provided to all political detainees,” Mie Mie said.

On Oct. 8, authorities tried to arrest another prominent female activist, Thet Thet Aung, along with her husband, Chit Ko Lin, near Mingalar market in the former capital, Rangoon. Thet Thet Aung escaped, and she remains in hiding. On Oct. 17, authorities detained her mother and mother-in-law.

“On Oct. 9, they came back around 2 p.m. and searched until 6 p.m. I was told that they took away my national ID card and that they wanted me,” Thet Thet Aung said, also speaking to RFA from hiding.

“My family was asked to inform me. On the evening of the 9th, they went around and searched houses—my aunts’ houses. On the morning of the 10th, they took away my mother and my mother-in-law. They blamed me. They said that only when I was captured would they release my mother and my mother-in-law, my parents. They said they wouldn’t release them unless I was captured,” Thet Thet Aung said.

“The youngest child is only about one year and two months old. And this child is not a healthy one. He had a blood transfusion at birth. The day after birth, the child’s blood was transfused, and we had to save his life. He needs a lot of care. The education of the children—the health of the children—…one is eight and the other one is not quite six. They are only at those ages. I’m really concerned for their health and education,” she said.

“I’m also concerned for my parents and my husband. They [the authorities] are really inhumane. My parents—my mother is over 50. She has heart disease, high blood pressure, stomach problems, and also terrible asthma. She has to be on constant medication for her asthma. She has to take her medicine day and night. My mother-in-law is over 70,” Thet Thet Aung said.

“I am extremely worried now for my children. I’m really worried and am thinking what I can do for them—for my parents and my children and my husband. I’m feeling panicked. Just think about it, I’m worried for my children and my parents.”

U.S. condemns new arrests

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department condemned the arrests of 1988 student leaders Htay Kywe, Aung Thu, and Zaw Htat Ko Ko. State Department spokesman Tom Casey called for their immediate release.

“By unjustly imprisoning organizers of peaceful demonstrations, Burma’s ruling generals continue to blatantly disregard the international community’s deep concern and calls for a halt to its crackdown, most recently expressed in the Oct. 11 United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement, and violate internationally accepted human rights principles,” Casey said.

“The continuing repression and persistent refusal to fully cooperate with the international community make clear the need for the international community to maintain strong pressure on the Burmese regime. We reiterate our call for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing, and Ko Ko Gyi, and for a genuine dialogue between the regime and the leaders of Burma’s pro-democracy and ethnic minority organizations,” he said.

The junta has said 10 people were killed when troops fired into crowds of peaceful protesters during the Sept. 26-27 crackdown, and it has reported detaining nearly 3,000 people.

But diplomats and opposition members say the actual death toll is far higher, and that many more people have been arrested. including thousands of monks who led the rallies.

Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Translations by Than Than Win. Edited by Khin Maung Nyane and Khin May Zaw. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Original reporting in Burmese

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