Interview: ‘I Was in the Same Living Hell I Had Heard About’

“The degree of brutality I have seen is the same as in the 1988, 1996 and 2007 protests,” says Nathan Maung.
2021-06-29
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Interview: ‘I Was in the Same Living Hell I Had Heard About’ U.S. journalist Nathan Maung was deported from Myanmar on June 14, 2021 after more than three months in detention, where he was tortured and denied food.
Courtesy of Nathan Maung via VOA

On March 9, Myanmar junta soldiers raided the office of Kamayut Media in Yangon, arresting the online news outlet’s co-founders, Nathan Maung, 45, and Han Thar Nyein, 40. Maung, Kamayut’s editor-in-chief, and Hanthar Nyein, a news producer, were held at a military interrogation center in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, before being moved to Insein Prison, the country’s main detention facility for political prisoners. They were charged with “dissemination of information or ‘fake news’ that could agitate or cause security forces or officials to mutiny,” an offence which carries a maximum three-year prison term. Maung was released after charges against him were dropped and his case dismissed, and deported to the United States on June 14. Khin Khin Ei spoke to Maung about his suffering during three months in notorious Insein Prison, and his feelings about getting released due to his U.S. citizenship, while his colleague Hanthar Nyein remains incarcerated. The following Q&A has been translated from Burmese to English and edited for length.

RFA: We have learned that you were tortured during detention. How bad was it?

Nathan Maung: It was really horrible during 15 days of interrogation. It was hard to put these experiences into words. It was very cruel. After they arrested me at my office, they took me to Yey Kyi Eai interrogation center. There, two soldiers dragged me by my arms into the facility. I don’t know where they took me. They put me in a room. They asked me my name, age and father’s name. They had my producer Hanthar Nyein beside me handcuffed behind his back on his knees on the floor. They hit and kicked him on the floor. He repeatedly cried ‘I am just a journalist’. They yelled ‘Is that you, journalist?’ or ‘This is for broadcasting fake news’ and kept hitting and kicking him. I knew they would turn to me any minute. After five minutes, they dragged me to another compound. They put me in the living room of a home. There was a chair and a small table. I was handcuffed, blindfolded and in a hood. They interrogated me at that place for three and a half days. They didn’t let me sleep. They took shifts to interrogate me continuously, and two or three authorities came every two hours. They didn’t give me drinking water for three days. I begged them for water as I got so thirsty, but they refused. They gave me a small amount of water on the third day. After three and a half days, they gave me a meal.

When they gave me the meal, I understood that I would not be killed. I was relieved that I would live. In those three days, they punched me in the face, head and shoulder and kicked me during the interrogations. The worst is they slapped my ears with both hands. They did this repeatedly to me--five or six times during each interrogation session. When the interrogators changed every two hours, the new ones did the same.

I had been tortured in that way. But my fellow inmate Hanthar Nyein has been tortured even more brutally. They punched and kicked him as they asked for his mobile phone password. They put his feet in a big ice tub for hours. He was in the sitting position and they told him to sit still. If he moved, they beat him. They took off his shirt and burned his chest with cigarettes. Finally, they stripped him naked and threatened to rape him. Then, Hanthar Nyein gave up, and gave them his mobile phone password.

But the torture didn’t end for him. After he gave up his password, they found the people he contacted and the photos taken with politicians and other journalists. They beat him, showing his photos together with Aung San Suu Kyi and saying offensive things against her…As far as I know, they stopped beating him after five days of interrogation.

RFA: What did they interrogate you about? And how did you answer?

Nathan Maung: In the first four days, while I had been tortured, they mostly asked about my past, where I was born, which schools I attended and which college I attended. I told them I was a college student and participated in 1996-97 college student demonstrations. I went to the Thailand border area in 1999. I applied for refugee status at UNHCR in Thailand. In 2004, I got a chance to travel to the U.S. and I arrived in the U.S. in 2005. I went to college and graduated in the U.S. I returned to Thailand in 2010. I worked as a contributor to RFA’s Burmese Service for a year. Then I returned to Myanmar and established Kamayut Media. They interrogated me about these activities meticulously and cross questioned many ways in the first four days. They learned that I am a U.S. citizen only after these interrogation sessions. They asked me to recite my passport number. I don’t remember it by heart. They punched me for that. They frankly asked me how I feed information to the U.S. government. I told them I am not from the CIA. I told them if they are trying to frame me as a CIA agent, this is wrong. None of the government agencies give us funding. It would be obvious if I received funding. When they could not establish that I was a secret agent, they moved on to interrogating the sources of funding for my Kamayut Media agency. They interrogated me on details on how much I receive for the agency every month, who are the sponsors, and how much I spent on staff. I had to explain the statistics of the past ten years in two or three days. They interrogated Hanthar Nyein for the same information and they cross-checked with the information they got from me. If there were discrepancies, they beat us. There might be some inaccuracies in numbers. We didn’t have these numbers in hand. Luckily, the information we give them in general matched each other. So they stopped interrogating us on the eighth day.  

RFA: Were you together with your colleague Hanthar Nyein?

Nathan Maung: They put us in separate rooms during the interrogation. We could not see each other. They moved me to at least five different locations during 15 days of detention. I think they did the same to him. On the 15th day, when they released me, they drove us out of Yey Kyi Eai interrogation center in the same vehicle. When they transferred me to police in Aung Tha Byay interrogation center, I learned that Hanthar Nyein was also brought along. They put us in separate cells there. I was so relieved to know that we were both alive.  

RFA: Did you see or hear other people being tortured during interrogations?

Nathan Maung: In separate prison at the interrogation center (don’t know which one), there were at least 2,000 people who were detained for political reasons. They put around 80 detainees in a single hall. We could stroll around the building when they opened our cell doors. So we got the chance to interact with other detainees and asked about their experiences. They told us about their experiences in Shwe Pyi Thar interrogation center. There, if the detainees have no injuries, they are put into a separate group and beaten so they have injuries. From around March 24-27, we saw new groups of as many as 50 detainees coming in every day. On April 5, they took me out of that prison and put me in solitary confinement at the main prison. Hanthar was left in that other prison. After a month, they sent him to the main prison. We were in solitary confinement with other political prisoners.

RFA: Why do you think they released you?

Nathan Maung: I think it is the result of the U.S. government trying various channels to secure the release of a U.S. citizen. In addition, Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of State, visited Thailand. She called for the release of me, Hanthar Nyein and (others). I heard that ASEAN delegations who visited Naypyitaw also pressured the authorities for our release.

RFA: What do you think about how the authorities treat the detainees?

Nathan Maung: I thought they would shoot and kill me in my office. I begged them not to shoot. I keep in mind that, in Yey Kyi Eai, I could be killed at any time. I heard the stories of living hell during detention thirty years ago from senior politicians. I know I was in the same living hell I had heard about. So I tried to remain calm and prepared. I tried to meditate as I was tortured and tried to free my mind, although my body was in detention. The degree of brutality I have seen is the same as in the 1988, 1996 and 2007 protests. They have been doing this to the minority groups in border areas all the time. It’s only that millions of people who live in central Myanmar don’t know that. Now they have spread the brutality to the streets and neighborhoods of cities like Yangon and Mandalay. It is no surprise to us. But we need to make them known to the world. This fascist military regime has been exempt from punishment. We need to end them. Otherwise, it will lead to more horrific crimes.  

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung

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