The Irrawaddy hears from three of Burma’s recently-released political prisoners, all of whom are still in Burma and therefore request that their identity be withheld.

MAE SOT – Z was one of fifty-five Burmese political prisoners freed as part of a controversial May 2011 amnesty that saw almost 17,000 people released from jail.

“I was released on May 17 under the so-called amnesty”, he says, after spending almost four years in Myingyan prison, far from his family in Arakan State. In a country that holds almost 2,000 political prisoners, some sentenced to almost a century of jail time, human rights groups and Burmese opposition figures criticised the recent releases, as most of those freed were nearing the end of their sentences in any case.

X, another recently-freed political prisoner, was accused of being one of ringleaders of the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’, a series of nationwide demonstrations against rising living costs that spiralled into a monk-led protest against military rule. Recalling the fait accompli that passed for his trial – “my lawyer was not allowed to defend me at court, and in fact I was sentenced before the trial was finished.”

X’s summary injustice was in contrast to the experience of Y, another of the recently-released contingent who was also caught up in the Saffron dragnet. He recounts that the trial period “took almost one year and I had been tried every week since mid of December 2007”, before finally receiving a 9 year sentence on November 11 2008.

Jail conditions for Burma’s political prisoners are always harsh, according to accounts given by former detainees. Y recalls his time in the remote Hkamti prison, where he and the other detainees had to drink water drawn from a nearby stream as there was no other source of drinking water in the surrounding area. “There is a gold mine nearby and the water is contaminated”, says Y, “and there was no doctor at the prison”.

Y was transferred to Hkamti from the police battalion at Kyauktan township, where former United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was scheduled to visit during October 2007. Prior to the envoy’s arrival, however, Y and the other detainees were moved to another police station, in what he believes was a ruse aimed at pretending that no civilians were arbitrarily detained during the Saffron protests and crackdown. UN human rights envoys are often refused entry to Burma, and when access to the country is granted, the envoys are given limited access to political detainees.

Remembering some of the violence meted out by the Government’s security forces during that time, Y says that “I was beaten and arrested near the Shwe Gon Taing bus stop, Rangoon by Swan Arr Shin members”, referring to the notorious faux-civilian hired-thug group, whose name translates as ‘Masters of Force’, that the Government sometimes deploys to intimidate or harm opponents.

The Mae Sot-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which helped in the setting-up of these interviews, estimates that 10,000 Burmese may have been tortured by the country’s security personnel since the August 1988 student rebellion against the Government. Some political detainees escape this cruelty, however, even if prison conditions in themselves are harsh. X said that “although I wasn’t physically tortured when I was detained in both prisons, I faced difficulties to receive health care as the authorities do not provide adequate health care.”

After his arrest on October 9 2007 at his home in Arakan State, Z was tortured. He explains that he “was handcuffed and taken with motorcycle to the police station custody. I was continuously interrogated at night time and day time since the time I arrived to the police custody. I was also deprived of drinking water, meals, sleeping and I was not allowed to have a bath. When interrogated, I was forcefully beaten on my ears, punched on my face and was told to stand up long.”

Y says that the absence of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has made life tougher than it might otherwise be for political prisoners. The ICRC has suspended visits to political prisoners since early 2006, citing the State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) insistence that it monitor the meetings, a contravention of ICRC procedures and of international law.

The SPDC was the name for the Burmese military junta prior to the establishment of a nominally-civilian Government in March 2011, after rigged elections in November 2010 produced a landslide win for the party formed by the SPDC, known as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Attempts by some of the tiny grouping of opposition politicians in Burma’s new parliament to promote an amnesty for the country’s political prisoners and prisoners of conscience have fallen flat, to date.

The freeing of political prisoners – who are deemed mere criminals by the Burmese Government – is portrayed as a litmus test of the new Thein Sein-led Government’s reformist intentions by some western leaders. Since the end of the opening session of parliament, some of the opposition groups, including the National Democratic Front (NDF), Democratic Party Myanmar, and the Peace and Diversity Party, have sought to stage demonstrations in support of Burma’s political detainees, but their requests to do so have been turned down.

The AAPP says that there are 1992 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in jail inside Burma, of which a total of 6 have been jailed since the country’s November 7 2010 election, with 3 of those incarcerated since the April 1 2011 formation of a quasi-civilian Government. In total, 111 political prisoners have been released to date during 2011. Aside from those amnestied, the rest of the 111 had completed their prison sentences.

– Roughneen was in Mae Sot earlier in June

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