Freed prisoners in Myanmar now living in a jail of the mind
Dissidents imprisoned under Myanmar's junta find further struggle after amnesty, haunted by those left inside whose fate they may share again
Vincent MacIsaac in Yangon
On October 12, 2011, a guard approached the cell of prisoner 7021/C, and said, "I have good news brother. You have been ordered released."
Saw Thet Tun refused to believe him. He had 10 years left of a 22-year sentence, his second, for writing and distributing a pro- democracy pamphlet.
The guard kept repeating the statement. "Don't joke with me. Please don't joke with me," Saw Thet Tun pleaded.
It was a common reaction by those who had been imprisoned for protesting against the country's longtime military junta, said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Yangon.
The former military dictatorship began locking up pro-democracy activists in 1988 after massive protests against the government. Since President Thein Sein, a former military commander, took office in 2011, ushering in political, economic and social reforms, there have been 15 amnesties of prisoners. They included the release of 1,181 dissidents and 22,238 criminals.
Still, many have resumed the activism for which they were originally jailed. Some assist farmers facing land disputes, others lead the fight against a new law that curbs protests.
All the while, members of the prisoners' association race to document the previous junta's crimes, including their own torture in prison. They believed their freedom may not last, several former prisoners said in interviews.
"It is very dangerous for former political prisoners to get involved in political activities, but we have no choice. It is our duty," said a former student activist named Aung Tin, jailed following the so-called saffron revolution, when monks joined students in the largest demonstrations in 20 years.
Aung Tin said he was convicted of being a member of an illegal group, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Although he has a university degree in education, he cannot find work as a teacher because of his criminal record. He volunteers as a tutor and, like others jailed for supporting democracy, he awaits the next national election, slated for next year.
"The first thing I noticed when I got out of prison was that we had a new flag," Aung Tin said. "The face has changed, but the military still controls the government. Now, we have the chance to make a change that is more than superficial."
For the newly freed democracy activists, the coming months are critical. They believe that the reforms whirling the former dictatorship into Asia's last frontier market may be temporary.
"Military leaders were responsible for atrocities," said Saw Thet Tun. "People were killed and tortured. Lives were broken. We need to document what happened… If we don't do it now we may not get a chance again."
A government spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The association has been staging public vigils for those who died behind bars, publicising the crimes that happened inside Myanmar's prisons, and advocating for the release of the remaining political prisoners.
Members also talked with staff with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a non-governmental organisation, which carefully documented that country's genocide for the Khmer Rouge tribunal. The dissidents aren't demanding an international investigation into the junta's acts - now.
Documentation was critical, said Bo Kyi of the prisoners' association. In Myanmar, people were afraid to keep records during the junta's rule as they could be used as evidence in prosecutions, he explained. "We need to record what happened," he said. "If we don't, in 20 or 30 years people will forget."
At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' People's Forum in Yangon in March, which drew thousands of participants, the prisoners' association set up mock prison cells, displayed tools of torture, and commemorated the 179 dissidents who died in prison. It was the association's most extensive public display yet.
The former prisoners also wanted a public memorial, a public apology and compensation for the families of those who died, Bo Kyi said.
He remains extremely cautious outside of prison. If he lends money to a friend, he does not ask what it will be used for. If it is spent to attend a protest, he could be accused of funding it, he explained.
Members were not seeking retribution, Bo Kyi said. "We don't want them to have to experience what we did," he said. "Whether they like it or not and whether we like it or not, we have to solve the country's problems together."
Like many of the former prisoners interviewed, he said he was prepared to return to prison. "You need to prepare your mind to go back; if you don't you will go mad," he said. "If I go back I will be placed in a special, extreme isolation cell."
The hour of morning exercise was "the worst kind of punishment", Bo Kyi recalled. Jailers sometimes forced dissidents to hop like frogs and assume yoga positions while their ankles were shackled to a 1.5-metre bar spreading their limbs . Once, he spent two weeks shackled in a 2.4-metre by 3.6-metre punishment cell with four other prisoners. "It took me weeks to learn to walk like a human again," Bo Kyi said.
The men weren't allowed to wash. He said he still can recall the nauseating stench.
Some torture techniques were so common that the prisoners gave them names. One, called "Chinese letters", referred to the bruises left by a group of guards who beat the men multiple times with truncheons on the back and legs. The beatings would repeat daily, sometimes for weeks, until a single whack felt, as one former prisoner put it, "like the first 100".
Win Tin, co-founder of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, launched the precursor of its newspaper Democracy Wave from Yangon's notorious Insein Prison. It was smuggled out, copied and covertly distributed.
Win Tin spent nearly 20 years in prison, at times in a dog kennel, and was among the first political prisoners to be released through an amnesty before the 2010 elections. The junta described the amnesty as a gesture of "loving kindness".
Advocates had fought for his release since the early 1990s. Using a second-hand computer and a Yahoo e-mail address, Bo Kyi and other former prisoners e-mailed human rights organisations, media and embassies, publicising their plights. The prisoners' association was established in 2004 when the number of political prisoners exceeded 2,100. Saw Thet Tun was released with 246 dissidents.
Before he was released, officers from Special Branch - the former military intelligence unit - asked Saw Thet Tun about his family and political opinions. As a condition of his release he signed a statement promising not to break any law.
He now works as the deputy chief clinical supervisor of a peer-counselling service for torture victims funded by the US Agency for International Development. Victims had been neglected and forgotten, he said. A January vigil to commemorate dissidents who died in prison drew only a single representative of a western embassy, he said.
Saw Thet Tun said he still thinks about the day he won his release, how the inmates from nearby cells congratulated him.
"They hugged me, they kissed me, but I could not even smile," he recalled. He couldn't look back. "I wondered what effect it would have on them when they watched me leave," he said. "When I saw their eyes I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. I knew they should be released like me."