Ko Nathan Maung, editor-in-chief of the online news platform Kamayut Media, was detained along with his colleague Ko Hanthar Nyein when junta forces raided their office in Yangon on March 9.
The journalist, who holds US citizenship, was freed on June 15 after three months and deported to the US. Ko Hanthar Nyein, however, remains in detention despite facing the same charges.
Ko Nathan Maung told The Irrawaddy about the torture and ill-treatment he experienced during interrogation in military custody.
How did junta forces detain you and Ko Hanthar Nyein?
Ko Hanthar Nyein left the office and immediately came back. He told me there were military trucks outside. From the window, I saw seven or eight trucks with around 45 soldiers. We were worried and unsure what to do.
A moment later, they were shouting and banging on the door. They forced it open and aimed their rifles at us. I told them not to shoot and that we would not resist. They asked us to bow our heads and put our hands on them. A colonel asked for Natha Maung and Hanthar Nyein.
They took things from the office, including shoes, and put black hoods on our heads and took us in a vehicle. Two soldiers dragged us from the vehicle into Ye Kyi Eai (interrogation center in Mingaladon, Yangon).
Ko Hanthar Nyein was told to kneel beside me. He was handcuffed, kicked and shouted at. He said he was a journalist and not a protester but they continually swore at him and kicked him. Then they took me to a house in a spacious compound. My hands were cuffed behind my back and I was blindfolded. And they started interrogating me without allowing me to sleep.
How did they interrogate you?
They didn’t even give me water. When I asked they kicked and beat me instead. They gave me a little water on March 12 and continued to beat me. They fed me that night for the first time. For the first two days, interrogators came in turns every two hours. One group had three interrogators and the other had two. The three-member group treated me harshly and the two were more gentle. It appeared the three interrogators spoke to Ko Hanthar Nyein after interrogating me. They checked my information against what they received from Ko Hanthar Nyein. If they thought the information didn’t match, they beat me. They interrogated me for eight days and noted down my answers. After interrogation, they read out my answers to me. They summarized my answers and included their narratives. After reading it, they asked me if I wanted to make any statement. I said I only wanted to drink, eat, walk, bathe and use the toilet and for them to treat me with dignity. I was not allowed to wash my face for eight days. I also asked for a lawyer.
We knew if we could survive the first two weeks of interrogation, we would not die. With that hope in mind, we endured hunger and thirst.
Were all your human rights violated during interrogation?
We were given food and water after a few days and empty plastic bottles for urine. We had to defecate in the toilet at the back of the house. There were always two soldiers on guard. We were blindfolded all the time except for defecation.
Our rights were denied. We were not treated like humans. The interrogation was like hell. Many people were treated more harshly than I was. They treated us like animals. I don’t know what they wanted. We told them the truth. I don’t understand their mindset. I was taken aback.
What were you thinking while being tortured?
Ko Hanthar Nyein experienced much worse torture than me. I couldn’t believe it when he told me how he was tortured when we met later. I was hit on my ears and punched all over my head and shoulders. I am a human and it was painful. I breathed mindfully [in mediation] and tried to keep my mind calm. I was able to endure, despite the pain.
Ko Hanthar Nyein was tortured worse. They pressed cigarettes on his chest when they couldn’t unlock his phone. They put his legs on large ice blocks for hours. They stripped him and threatened rape. Finally, he had to give them his phone password. On his phone, there were a lot of photos of him with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, [former president] U Htin Kyaw and foreign journalists, which led to more beatings.
When they saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture, they said rudely “your mother Kalar Ma [a racial slur for women of Muslim origin as the military has long accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of favoring Muslims] went to the ICJ [International Court of Justice] superfluously. They clearly loathe her. We suffered like that for four or five days.
Did they say why you were detained?
They didn’t tell us why but they said Kamayut’s stories were defamatory to the military and caused disunity and spread misinformation. They mainly interrogated me about Kamayut’s funding. They asked Ko Hanthar Nyein where to find Ko Min Ko Naing [a prominent dissident]. As he had the contact numbers of National League for Democracy [NLD] lawmakers, they asked where they were hiding.
My phone was broken when they raided the office so they didn’t have my contacts. But they got the contacts from Ko Hanthar Nyein’s phone and interrogated him more harshly.
Who did you see during your detention?
We were sent to a separate jail on March 23 next to Insein Prison. There were around 2,000 political prisoners detained since the coup. There were around 80 people per cell. There were students, writers, singers and NLD central executive committee members, including Ko Nai Ngan Lin and Ko Ye Min Oo. NLD MPs and ministers were kept separately. At the cell, we were updated by other detainees about what was happening outside. We didn’t know anything because we spent two weeks under interrogation. Every day 50 to 100 more people were brought from the interrogation center.
Were they also tortured?
Detainees from the interrogation center were divided between those who had been injured and those who had not. The uninjured prisoners were beaten. A student I saw had five or six gunshots in his armpit caused by rubber bullets. Some had facial scars from rubber bullets. They were severely beaten throughout interrogation. I think they were tortured more severely than us.
We were with Shan State finance minister U Soe Nyun Lwin and Panglong Township municipal committee chairman Ko Ye Hlaing of the NLD government. Both of them are from the CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw]. Ko Ye Hlaing and I were put in the same cell, and Ko Hanthar Nyein and U Soe Nyunt Lwin were in another cell. They were tortured severely. Ko Ye Hlaing told me junta forces put his hands on a table and beat them with a baton and his hands were torn by handcuffs and the flesh ripped off. They were kicked in their shoulders, faces and ribs. They were still bruised when we met them. U Soe Nyunt Lwin is over 50 but he was forced to crouch on the floor and beaten cruelly. We were all tortured differently.
When did you know you would be freed?
Five days before my release, a township police chief told me that they had arranged for me to return to the US via South Korea and asked me which airline I wanted to use.
He said four incitement charges were filed, including one by Aye Ne Win [a grandson of late military dictator Ne Win], had been dropped and I would be freed. When I asked about Ko Hanthar Nyein, he said there was still no instruction about him. He faced the same charge as me. I asked if it was because I hold US citizenship. I don’t understand why they still keep Ko Hanthar Nyein. There is only a 50-50 chance for his release. But we hope for the best.
Do you worry about Ko Hanthar Nyein? Do you think you will be able to see him again?
I hope I can see him again. My biggest hope right now is that all the detained journalists, including Ko Hanthar Nyein, and all the other detainees are released. I don’t feel like I have been freed. My body is in the US but my thoughts are always with Ko Hanthar Nyein and the others in prison.
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