Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, despite reforms
YANGON — Crouching through the entrance into Yangon’s new museum for political prisoners, a less-than nimble visitor might be forgiven for stepping face-first into the wall a meter inside the door.
Nobody has done that, apparently, in the weeks since the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) museum opened on March 18 — probably because the wall is decorated with an arresting mural of 701 photos of current and former political prisoners in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The entrance is a replica of the type of prison cell door found at Yangon’s Insein jail, one of dozens of prisons around the country once used to incarcerate opponents of the country’s military rulers after the army seized power in 1962.
Kyaw Soe Win, who was jailed from 1992 to 1998, now leads AAPP(B)’s work with ex-prisoners suffering mental health problems. “Friends, colleagues provided the photos to us,” he said of the hundreds of images, some grainy, faded, black and white, and dating to the 1960s.
Inside the museum is a plastic table-top model of Insein, crafted by Htin Aung, another former political prisoner who works with Kyaw Soe Win. The display occupies the middle of the room alongside smaller examples of art and craft works by ex-detainees, as well as rusted shackles worn by prisoners forced to work in chain gangs in remote areas.
“Those were killing fields, no proper food, hard work in hot weather, no protection against malaria,” said Kyaw Soe Win, hoisting the heavy manacles.
Many of the country’s dissidents and prisoners of conscience were freed in a mass amnesty in early 2012. It was one of many unexpected reforms by the part-civilian, part-military administration of the time, led by President Thein Sein, a former junta prime minister.
None of the ex-prisoners are venerated as much as Myanmar’s current de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. But many are politically influential. In 2017 ex-prisoners including Ko Ko Gyi formed the Four Eights People’s Party, which will likely contest the next national elections due in 2020.
The Four Eights evoke Myanmar’s uprising against military rule August 1988 that was met with a brutal crackdown. The events launched Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and are vividly commemorated in the museum.
“Hundreds of students were killed,” said Kyaw Soe Win. The deaths did not stop there. “According to our records more than 240 political prisoners died in prison” since 1988, he said.
As much as the museum amplifies a tragic history, it is also a jarring reminder that Myanmar still has political prisoners. The museum represents a contradiction, given that its opening — unthinkable during military rule — is a sign that the country is becoming more democratic.
But there absurdities do not end there. As well as collecting and displaying the photos and archives of the conditions for opponents of the military dictatorship, the AAPP still keeps track of political prisoners — as it did in Thailand, where it was located during the military era and maintains another, older museum.
There are now 54 political prisoners serving out sentences, with another 74 in prison awaiting trial, and 120 facing trial while out on bail, Htin Aung said.
Many of the current prisoners have been jailed under laws restricting free assembly. Their number is about a tenth of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners during the latter years of military rule until early 2011, but it is surprising that a country led by political prisoners still has any prisoners of conscience at all.
A stark reminder of this grim irony can be found on the mural inside the entrance. The central photo, much bigger than the others, is an amber-tinged headshot of Aung San Suu Kyi, arguably the world’s best-known former political prisoner since Nelson Mandela.
While her scope for maneuver been constrained by the still-powerful army, her government has been a disappointment to many former admirers in the West, notably for failing to stem the exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country’s northwest.
Below the photo of Suu Kyi’s beaming, sun-lit visage, there are two reminders that Myanmar still has political prisoners — grainy profiles of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, two Reuters reporters arrested in December and now facing 14 years in jail under the Official Secrets Act, a legacy of the days when the country was a British colony.
Their investigation was published by Reuters in early February and would, if eligible, be a worthy 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner when those awards are announced soon.
On April 10, a judge refused to dismiss the charges against the reporters, who are accused of possessing secret government documents, even though seven soldiers have been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for killing 10 Rohingya Muslims. That was the same crime that the journalists were investigating when arrested, the details of which were contained in a Reuters report published in early February.
“We have a hybrid regime, we do not have democratic government, we still have political prisoners,” said Bo Kyi, the museum’s founder.Show