Burma’s government has retaliated against a hunger strike by about 30 political prisoners in Burma's notorious Insein Prison by forcing the ringleaders of the protest into solitary confinement, according to a human rights group quoting prison sources.
Seven female prisoners launched the hunger strike a week ago in protest against a government prisoner amnesty program that failed to include most political detainees.
On Monday, 22 male prisoners, including three Buddhist monks, joined the protest, demanding better prison living conditions and improved family visiting rights.
“The latest information we have received is that six of the ‘leaders’ of the strike from the male group have been moved to what is known as the ‘dog cell’—a small cell block where they could be tortured and family visits are not allowed,” Aung Din, the executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said in an interview.
Quoting prison sources, he said the move was to isolate the group of six, which included an editor of The Kantaryawaddy Times, Nyi Nyi Htun, to prevent more prisoners from joining the hunger strike.
“In the past, political prisoners who went on hunger strike and were moved to such cells were tortured, and one prisoner died,” Aung Din said.
He said sources told him that the government had suspended family visits and court proceedings for Insein inmates to avoid leaks on the latest hunger strike situation.
The authorities are also considering transferring the prisoners involved in the strike to other prisons, he said.
“All these moves came after a visit by the director general of prisons to Insein today and after he rejected the demands of the prisoners who went on the hunger strike,” Aung Din said. “But the prisoners are continuing with their fast.”
Prisons Director-General Zaw Win had announced earlier this month the release of more than 14,600 prisoners under a clemency program that included fewer than 50 political prisoners.
Burma's government insists there are no political prisoners in its jails, but rights groups claim hundreds of jailed politicians, students, and activists have been convicted and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges to justify their incarceration.
Earlier this year, the Burmese military oversaw a transition to civilian government after four decades of army rule, but many of the administration leaders are former military officers and members of the old regime accused of blatant human rights abuses.
Aung Din said the political prisoners in a six-point demand wanted “adequate and hygienic daily food supply” and steps “to prevent insects and rats from entering the prisoners’ living area."
They also requested separate cells and living areas and facilities for political prisoners and criminal prisoners.
“Prisons in Burma are a known living hell,” said Aung Din, who himself served over four years as a political prisoner in the country.
“There is no adequate or sufficient food supply, no clean water, no proper medical treatment, and no livable environment. Prison cells and halls are full of mosquitoes, bed bugs, flies, ants, and other insects."
"Prison guards treat the prisoners like animals under their command,” he said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese rights group, said in a statement that the vegetable soup, called “talabaw,” served to inmates was “tasteless and [of] very low quality—just boiling water with substandard ingredients. “
It said that the lack of standard nutrition had resulted in an outbreak of scabies, a contagious skin disease, with “most prisoners now suffering from hypertension.”
“Other communicable diseases are now widespread. Prisoners are suffering from diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, dengue fever, and influenza which are caused by contact with mice, rats, flies, and mosquitoes,” the association said.