From the Archive

From Prison Cell to Cemetery

By Kyaw Zwa Moe, Political Prisoners 16 October 2013

Wednesday is the seven-year anniversary of the death in custody of well-known student activist Thet Win Aung. In this cover story, which first appeared in the August 2001 print issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine, English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe writes about how the former military regime’s control over the lives of political prisoners often extended as far as their graves.

On June 12 and July 12 this year (2001), two people passed away from AIDS-related diseases in Burma. Exactly one month after Bo Ni Aung died on June 12, 2001, Si Thu, also known as Ye Naing, succumbed to that incurable syndrome. These days, in fact, it seems to be nothing unusual or surprising when we hear about more victims of HIV/AIDS. Yet the true story shows that these two were not so much victims of AIDS, but of Burma’s ruling junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Both of them died as a result of the junta’s inhumane treatment of prisoners. Bo Ni Aung, 42, had been a political prisoner who was set free in the middle of 1999, having spent more than eight years in two disreputable prisons, Insein and Thayet. Si Thu died while being detained under Article 10(a) of the State Protection Act in Tharawaddy prison. Aged 35, he was a former student activist who had been incarcerated for 11 years in Insein and Tharawaddy, not far from the Burmese capital.

After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Bo Ni Aung went to the Thai-Burma border to join the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). After some time, he returned secretly to the country, but was arrested for his involvement with the ABSDF in 1991. Military Intelligence (MI), the junta’s secret police, used various forms of torture on him to get the information they wanted.

One of these was to forcibly inject him with a drug to make him talk unconsciously about everything he knew. When I met him in the Insein annex jail, known as the Special Prison, he recounted that he didn’t know what kind of drug it was, but he said he was terrified of the possible effects. This caused him to suffer from extreme paranoia. As a result of being brutally tortured, he suffered from one disease or another throughout his prison term. For him, the MI interrogation center was the threshold of Hell.

After suffering these hardships at the MI center, he was thrown into Insein Prison where he was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, which was later reduced to 10 years in accordance with a decree issued in 1993 that halved the sentences of all political prisoners. From this time, his health started to deteriorate rapidly.

Though he was transferred to Thayet Prison, he was soon sent back to Insein Special Prison to be given medical treatment. Yet, as with many other prisoners, he never received appropriate medical treatment. He was suffering from problems such as a weak heart, hypertension and mental illness, but he was not permitted to see the regular physician. In addition, he often had seizures, for which he was injected with a sedative at least two or three times a week, which seemed to make him even more scared.

He was frequently sent to the so-called hospital in prison, where there were just three physicians for almost 10,000 prisoners. There was very little medicine, no operating room, and no medical instruments in this “hospital”. Two hundred or so patients would go to the outpatients’ clinic at the hospital each day, only to find a notice reading, “Only 10 needles and 5 syringes available today.” The number changed from day to day, but only slightly. Even worse, nobody knew if those few needles were used for the patients or not.

Bo Ni Aung was never allowed to go to other hospitals. Later, when the jail physicians recommended that he be hospitalized outside of the prison because of his worsening health, the MI refused. It was never a physician, but always the MI, that decided whether or not a political prisoner should be treated in an outside hospital.

One day, an MI agent came to the jail hospital and told Bo Ni Aung that if he wanted to be treated at the Rangoon General Hospital, he would have to agree to sign a statement promising not to say anything about torture in the MI center. Bo Ni Aung refused. Afterwards, he told me: “I couldn’t promise not to say anything about MI’s brutal torture in order to get treatment, because they are trying to cover up the truth.”

Despite his declining health, he survived his long prison term. After he was released, we ran into each other at the Kaba Aye Pagoda and he said that he was going to the hospital near the pagoda once a week to receive treatment. I was struck dumb with grief, because in the center of Rangoon, that is the sole psychiatric hospital for mental patients.

Bo Ni Aung is not the only political prisoner who has died on account of the military regime. On one single day—March 18, 1988—about 200 protesters, including university students and schoolchildren, were slain by a death squad in Insein prison. According to the book Death in Custody, published by the Irrawaddy Publishing Group in 1999, 48 political detainees have died in prisons and interrogation centers since the regime put down a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

To my knowledge, at least five other political prisoners’ names belong on this revised list. They are: U Tun Sein, who was also a prisoner of conscience in the Coco Islands under the dictator Ne Win, died while suffering from various diseases at Insein prison hospital in 1994.

Aung Naing, who was given a 7-year sentence in connection with his role in the 1996 student movement, died of appendicitis at the end of 1997. A physician had given him a date to undergo surgery, but shortly thereafter he was transferred to Kale (Kalay) prison in Sagaing Division, many hundreds of miles away from the capital. The authorities ignored his poor health, and he took his last breath inside those walls.

Nyunt Zaw, who as a university student took an active part in the 1988 pro-democracy movement, passed away in Tharawaddy prison at the beginning of 2000, at the age of 34. In 1991, he was given a ten-year sentence under section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act. Due to clandestine political activity inside Insein prison, his sentence was increased by seven years, along with 24 other political prisoners, including U Win Tin, an aging journalist who was bestowed this year’s UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award. According to prison officials, Nyunt Zaw died of liver disease.

Prior to his death in the prison hospital, he wrote a note on a scrap of paper and gave it to a fellow inmate. On it, he wrote: “I know my condition is not good. If I die now, then I will no longer be able to take responsibility for my family. But I am satisfied with myself because I have done what I can for my country.”

The two others are Bo Ni Aung and Si Thu, mentioned above. The book Death in Custody mentions three other political prisoners who have died of AIDS-related diseases: U Hla Than, National League for Democracy (NLD) MP-elect for Coco islands; U Kin Sein, from the People’s Progressive Party (PPP); and Thu Ta, a postgraduate student. So Bo Ni Aung and Si Thu should be classified together with them.

According to the most recent figures compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) the death toll of political prisoners who have died in detention is 68.

Of course, in reality, there have probably been many other detainees besides political prisoners who have died of AIDS-related diseases. I remember vividly seeing long queues of Thai prisoners waiting to be injected against scabies.

At the head of the queue stood a male nurse who had just a couple of syringes for the dozens of patients. Behind him, his assistant, a prisoner, was busy refilling a used syringe for the next patient in line. The reused needles and syringes were never cleaned. Every prisoner realized that the nurse knew little about health and medicine, because he was not a real nurse, just an ordinary warden. Many Thai prisoners were sent to the prison hospital, and although some of them returned after being discharged from the hospital, several of them succumbed to AIDS-related diseases.

We might expect that the deaths of Bo Ni Aung and Si Thu would finally bring them freedom from oppression. Yet for political activists in Burma, even this is not the case. For days before Bo Ni Aung’s death, the MI secretly photographed and videotaped his friends as they came to visit him at his deathbed.

In a similar manner, the police and MI agents of Tharawaddy Township watched over Si Thu’s funeral. As Bo Ni Aung’s cremation was held under the watch of MI personnel in a Rangoon cemetery, Si Thu was buried in a Tharawaddy graveyard in front of the secret police. Thus does the junta extend its control over the lives of political prisoners, until nothing remains of them but memories in the minds of their loved ones.