Prisoners of Conscience Stage Rare Protest in Myanmar’s Insein Prison

They demand to be released after they were left out of an emergency amnesty due to COVID-19.
2021-07-23
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Prisoners of Conscience Stage Rare Protest in Myanmar’s Insein Prison Visitors wait outside the gates of Insein Prison in Yangon, in an undated photo.
RFA

Several political prisoners staged a rare protest at Myanmar’s notorious Insein Prison on Friday demanding that authorities grant their freedom, days after the ruling military junta announced an emergency COVID-19 amnesty for inmates charged with all minor crimes except defamation.

The prisoners of conscience began their demonstration early in the morning and could be heard singing pro-democracy songs in unison, as well as calling for the release of detained National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint. Their singing could be heard well outside the walls of the prison in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon.

A lawyer representing the inmates cited prison staff as saying that the protesters had made three demands.

“The first demand is to free political prisoners charged under [Penal Code] 505 (a) [for ‘state defamation’], as inmates with minor criminal cases and drug offenders have had their charges dropped in recent days,” the lawyer told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“The second demand is to provide adequate and proper medical treatment to those who have been ill. ‘Sickness is rampant, but treatment is inadequate,’ they said. The last one is to relax [new] restrictions … for inmates on items sent from families which have made life extremely hard.”

Witnesses told RFA that six military trucks arrived at Insein Prison after the protest erupted and that security at the facility was tightened.

The protest came three days after the junta’s July 20 order to release all prisoners held under a group of 11 charges that include gambling, possession of illicit liquor, drugs, and prostitution. The release, which the military said had been granted to protect against the spread of COVID-19, drew criticism for omitting detainees who had spoken out against the junta’s Feb. 1 coup d’état.

Myanmar is struggling with a devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections, the number of which rose Friday to a total of 258,870 since the country’s first recorded case in March last year. The official monthly infection rate has jumped from around two percent of those tested in April 2020 during the first wave to 23 percent earlier this month, and at least 6,459 have died in the country, including more than 2,200 in the first three weeks of July alone.

Meanwhile, the country’s hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and turning away all but the most seriously ill. Others must settle for treatment at home, but shortages have left families scrambling to secure basic medical supplies, including the oxygen they need to keep their loved ones alive.

Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the country’s military seized power on Feb. 1, claiming that a landslide victory by the NLD in the country’s November 2020 ballot was the result of voter fraud.

The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and has violently responded to widespread protests, killing 931 people and arresting 5,358, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Tens of thousands of people, including many healthcare professionals, have left their jobs to join a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to junta rule.

Brutal punishments

Soe Yar Zar Tun, a freelance journalist who was released from Insein Prison at the end of June, said he fears for the safety of the political prisoners in Insein, as the junta could use force against them.

“Even in normal times, we have to obey [prison authorities] to the letter. If they say sit, we sit. If they say get up, we get up. If not, they would come in and curse and hit you,” he said.

“And now, they have brought in soldiers and I’m sure they would use force to subdue [the protesters]. I don't know how many will be injured. I'm worried some might get killed.”

Zeyar Lwin, who is helping prisoners’ families send letters to their loved ones, told RFA that the protesters face punishments including beatings and being sent to “dog kennels,” or extremely cramped enclosures, for days at a time.

“They are only provided with a very small amount of food and water and won’t even be let out for a bath,” he said.

“Those who led the protest would be beaten brutally. The junta does a lot of bad things outside of the prisons, but you can’t even imagine what they might do inside.”

Other punishments could include a lockdown in the prison that would make it more difficult to receive letters or foodstuffs from family members, or tighter restrictions when prisoners are taken for court appearances.

As of Friday, protesters were negotiating with prison officials, but had yet to come to an agreement.

A retired prison official who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said the protests could spread to other prison blocks or prisons if the demands of the political prisoners are not addressed.

Calls for release

The AAPP, in an emergency statement on Friday, said anti-military slogans and political songs were heard from the women’s dormitory at Insein Prison at around 8:00 a.m., suggesting the protest had spread to other cells throughout the facility.

In September 1990, six political prisoners were killed and 40 were taken to the hospital in Insein Prison after a brutal crackdown on protesters led by prison officials.

The AAPP has called on international governments to put pressure on the junta to prevent a massacre in prisons by the authorities.

An AAPP spokesman told RFA that the political prisoners should be released because of the worsening COVID-19 situation.

“Covid infections are very high inside the prison. These people shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place and now there’s even more of a reason for them to be released,” said the spokesperson, who declined to provide their name.

“They were sent to prison and it’s wrong that they weren’t provided adequate care. These are political prisoners, and it is as if they are using other inmates as weapons to systematically kill them.”

The embassies of Australia, Canada, and 13 EU member states have called for a peaceful solution and urged the authorities to ensure good health care for all detainees in prisons out of respect for fundamental human rights.

Phyu Phyu Thin, Secretary of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Representative Committee, CRPH, also wrote a letter to the International Committee of the Red Cross Friday urging the International Red Cross (ICRC) to address the plight of political prisoners in accordance with international ethics.

Repeated attempts to contact the director of Insein Prison by RFA went unanswered Friday.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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