After Amnesties, Burma's Political Prisoners Pull Together

By Political Parties, Samantha Michaels 4 June 2013

RANGOON—When the guards came to his cell and said he was free to leave Rangoon’s Insein Prison, Zaw Moe had surprisingly mixed feelings.

The 35-year-old, along with dozens of other political prisoners, was granted amnesty by President Thein Sein in late April, a day after the European Union lifted its economic sanctions against Burma. After more than three years in one of the country’s most notorious detention centers, he was eager to see his family again, but also uneasy.

“At 2 pm, they said I was released and they told me to pack my things. But as I was leaving, I saw my other cellmates and didn’t feel happy. I was free, but what about my friends?” he told The Irrawaddy. “I didn’t feel happy until I saw my parents.”

The day after being released, Zaw Moe heard from a friend in prison that some detainees had been beaten for breaking prison rules. He couldn’t stop thinking about his cellmates. “But I felt like I couldn’t talk to my parents, brothers and sisters,” he said. “They asked me not to talk about it anymore, after one or two times.”

Zaw Moe, who has lived in Burma’s biggest city for about two decades, speaks stoically about his arrest in 2009, when an informant gave him over to the police at a tea shop in Rangoon’s Ahlone Township. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his political activism, which included forming an organization with links to the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a group that was outlawed by the former military junta. “I wasn’t scared,” he said of the arrest. “I just thought, this is it, everything’s over.”

But however stoic, he said the feeling of isolation weighed heavily on him for a few weeks after his release in April.

“I remember in the car, driving with my parents, my father told me not to speak on this topic, about prison,” he said. “They didn’t want to hear it anymore. I actually started crying in the car.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t deserve to go to prison, but I felt like my family was ashamed of me. Before, I thought they had been proud of me.”

Zaw Moe is one of several hundreds of political prisoners who have been freed by Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government during the past two years. The mass amnesties have often coincided with concessions by the West, including the suspension or lifting of economic sanctions, and have been praised by the international community as a sign of Burma’s transition toward democracy. But Zaw Moe’s experiences during his early days of freedom are emblematic of some continuing challenges faced by many former political prisoners, who say the government has done nothing to help them reintegrate into their communities.

“Former political prisoners often feel marginalized by the government and the community,” said Bo Kyi, a prominent activist from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit that provides financial and medical assistance to political prisoners during their detention and after their release.

As organizers of the decades-long democracy movement, many of Burma’s former political prisoners have emerged as prominent journalists, activists and leaders of civil society, but Bo Kyi said the majority struggle to find stable employment.

“If they were lawyers or doctors [before their arrest], maybe they didn’t get back their license,” he said. “If they were in prison for a very long time, maybe they didn’t have a chance to finish their education to get a good job. … They sacrificed their life [for their activism], and then they’re released and they feel as though they have nothing.”

Bo Kyi and other activists have criticized the government for using political prisoners as bargaining chips, freeing them only at opportune moments to win favor in the West.

Zaw Moe agreed, adding: “The government doesn’t do anything. No job placement, no health assistance, nothing.”

Building Trust

Instead, former political prisoners are taking measures to assist each other.

“AAPP and the Former Political Prisoners Group, these two organizations have helped us, the released political prisoners, so much,” Zaw Moe said. “They’ve given us financial assistance, including education and health assistance.”

Since 2010, AAPP has offered counseling services for former political prisoners and their families over the border in Thailand, in Mae Sot, where more than 100,000 Burmese refugees fled during the decades of military rule.

In the same Thai town, free mental health services are also offered at the popular Mae Tao Clinic, which was founded by Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen doctor, and serves more than 150,000 Burmese patients. About half the patients at the clinic are migrants who live in Thailand, but the rest cross over the border from Burma for the sole purpose of receiving treatment.

Now, for the first time, AAPP is launching an extension of its counseling program in Rangoon. Kyaw Soe Win, AAPP’s chief clinical supervisor, said 15 counselors from the group had received training from Johns Hopkins University in the United States to offer individual counseling sessions for former political prisoners and their families, free of charge.

“Clients can come here, or our counselors will meet them somewhere else,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that the group began developing the Rangoon-based program last year and was wrapping up its three-month pilot period.

With the new degree of openness under Thein Sein’s government, he said life had gotten easier in some ways for former political prisoners. “The political situation is better, so former political prisoners can get involved in the ongoing political process,” he said.

“The main problem is that people in our society aren’t familiar with counseling and mental health—especially counseling,” he said. “They think counseling is just for crazy people, not for normal people. They might not realize they feel depressed or anxious. So right now we’re trying to raise awareness.”

AAPP’s counseling program has received funding from Johns Hopkins, Bo Kyi said, but no support from Burma’s government.

“The government is very slow to work on this issue,” he said. “There might be some psychologists, but they’re just sitting at the hospital or the clinic, not going into the communities.”

Even if the government did set up assistance programs, he said, many former political prisoners might be reluctant to make use of them.

“In order to do this program, what we need is trust. Without trust, we cannot do anything,” he said. “Many former political prisoners in the community know AAPP, we’ve been helping them with our assistance program. So it’s easier for us to earn their trust.”

Many former political prisoners also receive free medical care at the Muslim Free Hospital in Rangoon, a charity hospital where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s doctor has worked as a surgeon for about two decades.

In Burma, the government’s public hospitals are prohibitively expensive for most people, as patients are charged for all equipment used during their stay—including bandages and stiches for surgery—so the Muslim Free Hospital has earned a reputation for its charity. Named for its founders’ religion, the hospital is nonsectarian, serving patients of all classes and faiths, and is a particularly popular option for political activists, largely because Suu Kyi’s doctor, Dr. Tin Myo Win, works there.

“Most of the patients here happen to be politicians, student activists, former political prisoners and also their family members,” said Tin Myo Win, adding that the hospital had received training from the United States to develop a mental health program that includes services for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The doctor arranged for Zaw Moe to come for a free checkup in April.

“He [Tin Myo Win] told me I should just send all the political prisoners to him,” Zaw Moe said.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy recently, Zaw Moe said he was feeling more upbeat again, especially after some of his friends were freed from Insein Prison in the latest mass amnesty last month, before Thein Sein’s landmark visit to the United States.

He said he benefited from talking to older former political prisoners after his release, when his family and other friends urged him to stop dwelling on the past, but added that he would likely not participate in a formal counseling program. Still, he said the AAPP program—or any outlet to discuss experiences in prison—could be useful for former political prisoners.

“If they [AAPP] can do what they say, it’s a good idea,” he said of the Rangoon-based mental health program.

With his family’s support, he is now pursuing a certificate in computer networking and teaching English-language lessons part time to support himself.

“When I received my prison sentence, the government thought they had won and I had lost. But no—in prison I thought, what can I do to polish myself, what can I do to make myself better?”

And now that he’s out: “What can I do? I’m going to pick myself up. I’m going to polish.”