BANGKOK – On Saturday, artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin opened a new exhibition in Bangkok, with the event punctuated by word coming through from Yangon that Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s best-known detainee, had been freed from house arrest.
Htein Lin was jailed from 1998-2004, smuggling his art out of prison with the help of sympathetic guards, proof that even amid Myanmar’s seemingly-endless saga of oppression, humanity can prevail. “One guard took a big risk, and even came to my first exhibition in Rangoon after I was released”, he said. Overjoyed at Suu Kyi’s release, Htein Lin cautioned me that “there are lots of journalists, poets and other dissidents inside”. Myanmar has over 2200 political prisoners held in labour camps, decrepit jails and detention centres in the military-ruled country.
One of those is Myanmar’s iconic comedian, Zarganar, who Htein Lin describes as “my mentor”. Zarganar was given a 35 year jail sentence on charges of “public order offences”, after criticising the military Government’s response to the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 147000 people and left 3 million more homeless in the Irrawaddy delta.
Eight days later the junta pushed ahead with a referendum on a still-controversial Constitution, which in a foreshadow of last weekend’s much-derided landslide election win for the junta’s front party, passed by a 94% vote in favour amid allegations of ballot stuffing and forced voting. Over 300 of the detainees were rounded up in late 2008, as the military rulers took umbrage at criticism of their alleged callousness after Cyclone Nargis.
Conditions inside the country’s jails are thought to be harsh and many political detainees are forced into solitary confinement in in cramped and dark “dog cell”. Human rights organisations say that hundreds of political prisoners have been moved to remote prisons with access to relatives, lawyers and medical care under military restrictions. However some relaxation may be taking place. Htein Lin says that Zarganar, who is being held in Myitkina in Kachin State, in the county’s north, is in good spirits and is now allowed family visits.
Another former detainee is Ko Bo Byi, now the head of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), based in Thailand. The organisation says that there are 109 hard labour camps in Burma’s gulag. Arrested for his part in the 1988 student uprising, which propelled Aung San Suu Kyi into the international spotlight, Ko Bo Kyi says that “torture is state policy, it is systematic and widespread”, and estimates that over 10,000 Myanmarese may have been tortured by the state since 1988.
Recalling his own experience, he says “I was in an interrogation centre for 26 hours, I was beaten, and was not allowed to sleep for 4 days”. The number of political prisoners in Burma shot up as the dragnet widened in the weeks following the 2007 monk-led protests known as the “Saffron Revolution”.
Despite taboos against harming monks in predominantly-Buddhist Burma, over 200 monks remain locked up for their role in political activism. One of the monks being held is U Gambira, now 32, for his role in the 2007 protests. Thought to be in poor health, his arrest came as the military Government sought to infiltrate the sangha, or clergy, which is now under constant intelligence surveillance. U Gambira is serving a 63 year jail sentence.
Twelve parliamentarians and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party are among the long-term detainees. The dozen were among the seat-winners in Suu Kyi’s stillborn election landslide win in 1990. According to a May 2010 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 7 more MPs more died while in detention or shortly thereafter, and two others were assassinated outside the country. It is thought that at least one of the MP contracted HIV from infected needles while in custody.
One MP, Kyaw Khin, has been suffering from a severe form of ocular pain since 2005 and is now close to losing his eyesight because he is being denied medical treatment, says the IPU. The office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Taunggyi was informed by his wife of his plight but has been prevented by the authorities from providing assistance. The Government deems all prisoners as criminals, a sleight-of-word that undercuts the legal right of dissident to have their detention conditions monitored by the ICRC. The hope is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release may prompt some reconsideration by the junta for the estimated 2202 other dissident voices who are still locked up inside Myanmar.Show