Human Rights

Life on Death Row

By Tha Zin 25 October 2013

Prison life in Burma is hard enough for able-bodied men, but women, too, were imprisoned throughout decades of dictatorship. Since the anti-colonial struggle against the British, women in the country have played an important role in politics—participating in the task of building a viable state after independence and later campaigning for democracy against the military regime. In this cover story from the August 2007 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine, a former woman political prisoner recalls her experience in the 1990s in the notorious Insein Prison, where mental torture was the punishment for minor infringements of prison regulations.

The cell I was allotted measured about 15 feet square, with a row of metal bars forming one wall. It was lit by a 40-watt bulb. One corner had a bamboo mat, and there sat my cell-mate, a young woman. I joined her, sitting at one corner of the mat and answering her questions: “Who are you? What interrogation center did you come from? How was your interrogation?” We chatted, describing our experiences. I described the beatings and the kicks, and she showed me how her fingers had been injured by her interrogators with a sharp piece of bamboo.

At about 8 pm, as the prison fell into silence, I heard knocks on the back wall of the cell. My companion knocked in reply—this was apparently one method of communication between the prisoners. We were also able to talk directly through the bars to three young women in a cell facing ours. We talked into the night and finally turned in around 2 am. I found it difficult to sleep in these new surroundings and with the light burning all night.

The prison was awake early, and there was activity outside our cell. A plate of warm porridge was served up at 7 am.

Around 10 am., I heard rhythmic shouts of what sounded like “take” and “pour,” accompanied by the splashing of water. The noise came from a yard beyond our cell, and to find out what the commotion meant I unfastened a window at the top of one of the cell walls and peered out. Up to 20 women were splashing themselves with water from a brick-built tank, supervised by a cane-wielding warder shouting the commands “take” and “pour.” At the command “take,” the women would scoop water from the tank and then splash themselves clean with it when the warder yelled “pour.”

As I watched that strange scene, I heard a loud voice behind me. “Who opened the window?” asked a warder.

I had unfastened the window by untying a piece of metal wire that secured its two handles and then sliding back a bolt. “I opened it,” I confessed.

“Who ordered you to do that?” the warder barked.

It was just a window, I protested. Where was the harm in opening it? But opening a window seemed to be a cardinal crime, for after again haranguing me the warder condemned me to be transferred to the prison’s “Death Row.”

I picked up my small pile of clothes, bid goodbye to my cellmate and the three inmates of the neighboring cell and followed a warder to my new, ominously named quarters.

Death Row was a brick building, divided by a narrow passageway lined by five small cells and two larger ones. As its chilling name implied, it housed prisoners sentenced to death. And now I was one of them.

I was assigned to one of the larger cells, which measured about 20 feet by 12 feet. About 10 women shared the cell, and they gave me a noisy welcome, showering me with questions. Within one week, all but two of them had been led away.

The cell in which I was to spend several months had a slop pail in one corner and a pot of drinking water in another. We shared three plates and two bamboo mats, surviving on a diet of boiled peas, spinach, sour soup, fried prawn paste and tamarind. When we were able to leave the cells and cross the yard to take a shower, we collected what vegetables and greens we could find to add some variety to our meals, using a knife fashioned from a hair clip to cut the meager produce.

Sometimes women who received food parcels from visiting family members shared out such treats as homemade curry, fish paste and fried vegetables. I noticed, however, that the parcels weren’t as big or as appetizing if they were brought in by husbands of the imprisoned women.

One woman inmate told me: “When men are imprisoned, their wives struggle to visit them, despite many difficulties. But when women are imprisoned, their husbands just try to be dutiful. They offer such excuses as caring for the children, household work and daily chores. Some husbands even take up with another woman.”

We had some freedom on Death Row—freedom to talk and argue among ourselves. And to pray. I still didn’t know how long I would have to serve in prison. And why Death Row? It was not a good omen.

There were worse places to be, however. One punishment cell was a dark, windowless place with a floor of wet sand. Four or five days in this dank, fetid hole were the punishment for violating prison regulations.

At night, we boosted spirits by singing. Some of the inmates knew the popular songs of performers like Zaw Win Hut and Hay Mar Ne Win, and they had good voices, too.

This story first appeared in the August 2007 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.