https://www.rte.ie/news/player/world-report/2018/0415/ – radio report here
RANGOON — One of Burma’s thousands of former political prisoners, Bo Kyi fled to Thailand after he was freed from jail in 1997. He then spent the best part of 2 decades keeping track of and lobbying for the release of others jailed in his homeland for opposing the country’s former military dictatorship.
His Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP, opened an office in Rangoon, after Burma, officially known as Myanmar, after the army surprisingly handed power to a civilian government in 2011.
The high point of that transition came in 2015 when the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, probably the world’s best known political prisoner since Nelson Mandela, won parliamentary elections.
But now, three weeks after the AAPP opened a museum in Yangon commemorating those jailed fighting for democracy, Bo Kyi is angry.
“We have a hybrid regime, we do not have democratic government, we still have political prisoners,” he said.
There are still almost 250 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in Burma, despite the country being led by former political prisoners. Not only Suu Kyi, but the country’s new president, Win Myint, and many of the NLD party members, are all former prisoners jailed for protesting against military rule.
The entrance to the new political prisoner museum features two jarring reminders of how Burma is yet to dispense with its past.
A red door, barely big enough to allow a 10 year old to enter without stooping, is a replica of the type of cell door still seen in Burma’s prisons.
Through the door is a montage of headshots of 701 former and current political prisoners, with the biggest, which almost hits you face on as you arch back up to full height after stepping through the door, is a smiling Aung San Suu Kyi, lit on one side by a golden hour sun.
“Friends, colleagues provided the photos to us,” said Kyaw Soe Win, another AAPP staff member. He was jailed from 1992-98 and now leads AAPP’s work with ex-prisoners suffering mental health problems.
But on the row of smaller portraits below Suu Kyi, are two reminders that Burma still jails people who investigate wrong-doing.
There, are photos of 32 year old Wa Lone and 28 year old Kyaw Soe Oo, two young Reuters reporters jailed since December on charges of stealing state secrets.
They were investigating the murder of ten Muslim Rohingya villagers near the border with Bangladesh, during army reprisals for Rohingya militants attacking border posts.
Their reporting was written up by Reuters colleagues and published on February 8, an investigative masterpiece that measures up against past Pulitzer prize winners,
Myanmar had around a million Rohingya living on its soil prior to the army reprisals. But around 700,000 Rohingya fled the scorched earth tactics deployed by the military, now languishing in huge camps in Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been unable or unwilling to do anything about the destruction, and her government has railed against criticism from the West over the treatment of the Rohingya.
Most Burmese label the Rohingya as Bengali, implying they are from Bangladesh, and back the army’s actions.
Suu Kyi’s government does not control the army, but she seems to back the expulsion of nearly three quarters of a million people.
And she was reportedly enraged when Bill Richardson, a former US senator, raised the Reuters jailing during a recent visit to Burma. The flare-up between the two old friends that saw Richardson jump on a flight back to the States, flabbergasted that the once-iconic former political prisoner he lobbied to have freed, could take such a dismissive stance toward what are effectively now her prisoners.
Only last week the judge in the case ruled against dismissing the charges against the reporters — despite 7 soldiers being sentenced to 10 years hard labor for their part in carrying out the massacre that the reporters were investigating when arrested.
Absurdly, a similar fate could await the two Reuters reporters, who are currently detained in Insein jail in Rangoon.
Inside the museum is a table-top model of Insein, crafted by Htin Aung, another former political prisoner. The display sits in the middle of the room alongside smaller examples of art and craft work by other ex-detainees, as well as rusted prison shackles worn by previous political prisoners, some of who were forced to work in chain gangs in remote rural areas.
Hoisting up the heavy manacles, Kyaw Soe Win said hard labour prisoners had no proper food or protection against malaria and were forced to work day and night in a country where temperatures can hit 40 degrees.
“Those were killing fields,” he said.
For World Report in Rangoon, this is Simon Roughneen