Human Rights

Midnight Callers

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 notorious Insein Prison in the 1990s.

It was a deceptively beautiful night, the stars glittering like ice crystals in a cold and black December sky. The ringing tones of an iron bar striking the hours signaled midnight—and then other sounds shattered the silence. Dogs barking, and the ominous clatter of combat boots in the street outside.

I put down the book I was reading and knew the men in heavy boots were coming for me. I still had time to flee the house, but I stayed put. My grandmother was dozing nearby. From the nearby bedroom came the snores of my father.

There were shouts: “Anybody in the house, anybody there? We’re going to check the guest book record…open the door.”

I opened the house door and then the entrance to the compound.

More than a dozen armed soldiers ran into the yard and took up position. I had half expected them, but my grandmother and my parents, roused from sleep, were frightened and confused. A good-looking man in civilian clothes asked me to identify myself and then said: “You know why we are here and what you have done?”

His cold, ruthless eyes stared into mine, and I stared back in reply. The soldiers searched the house, turning the place upside-down. They seized on my collection of books, cassette tapes and my diary. “Come along with us,” I was told.

I gathered together a change of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste. My grandmother seemed on the verge of collapse and my mother turned to care for her, helped by some neighbors who had been woken by the excitement. I followed the soldiers into the street.

At the end of the street a black Ranger truck was parked, guarded by two soldiers. They ordered me to get in. As soon as I entered the car, I was blindfolded with a black cloth and the vehicle drove off on what seemed an endless journey, during which I rehearsed in my head the questions I expected to be asked and the answers I would give.

The road finally went uphill and seemed to stop in an open space with trees. I heard the rustle of the leaves in the cool night air and sensed the presence of other people.

Still blindfolded, I was led through several doors, each of which had to be unlocked. I was led to a wooden, backless chair, so high that my feet didn’t touch the ground. The time passed slowly, and I felt very alone and scared. An iron bar sounded 4 a.m. Shortly afterwards, I heard footsteps, people entered the room, and my blindfold was removed.

I had difficulty seeing clearly after so long blindfolded, but then I recognized a table, with two men sitting at it, one of them the man who had led my arrest. A third man stood in the half-light of a lamp, staring inquisitively at me. The second man at the table had the trace of a smile on his swarthy face.

It was a large room, ill-lit by the reddish glow of a single lamp. One wall had a large pane of dark glass, behind which (movie-going had taught me) interrogators were probably sitting and observing their prisoner.

“Right!” said the man with the cold eyes. And the interrogation began. It lasted four days and three nights. The questions were always the same, but sometimes put in reverse order and with words changed. I felt dizzy and stumbled through my replies, even though I wanted to take every care in formulating them.

“When you first answered, it was not like that,” I would be told. And: “Tell me again, carefully.”

Their demands and threats were often backed up with kicks. Combat boots thumped into my back and stomach.

After this “softening up,” I was allowed at least to sleep at night. But sleep was difficult in a cell from where I heard the sounds of prisoners being tortured nearby and their cries and groans of pain. Although I hadn’t slept for days I couldn’t get the sounds out of my mind, and my eyes and ears remained wide open.

Food was a plate of rice and a slice of fish without any oil. I tried to eat as much as I could to keep my strength up, but one day my stomach and back hurt so much from the interrogators’ kicks, that I couldn’t finish my meal. The next day the same plate came back, unwashed. I vomited—it was a very low point in my detention.

My spirits were also very low because of the slander and defamatory abuse thrown by my interrogators at comrades who were risking their lives for the cause of democracy and freedom. The interrogation often took a prurient turn. Questions were put in such a way as to suggest that I had personal reasons for defending certain comrades.

“So what’s your relationship with that man?” was one example.

“Are you really interested in politics, or do you just want to get involved with him?” was another.

In the early morning of the tenth day, a group of three or four men entered my cell and ordered me to pack my belongings. I hoped this meant my release, but I instinctively feared the worst.

I was again blindfolded and led to what seemed to be the same vehicle that had brought me here. I seemed to be flanked by two armed soldiers. I heard the sounds of normal life outside, strangely new after nearly 10 days isolated in a detention cell. I told myself not to fear whatever lay ahead, to continue to struggle for justice and truth.

The vehicle stopped in what seemed to be a crowded place.

“Out you get,” I was told. The blindfold was removed, and I tried to take in my surroundings. A high brick wall reared up before me, and I was led to a door at the foot of it. For some reason, I smiled. Prison lay ahead, I now knew.

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