Life and Death Behind Prison Walls

By Htet Aung 8 August 2017

Htet Aung was The Irrawaddy’s staff writer in 2010. Here he recalls the tragic death of his friend, prison mate and 1988 activist in an article originally published in 2010.

One morning in January 2001, we all were startled to hear Si Thu declare: “I’ve been infected with HIV.” All at once, the optimism and good wishes we had been expressing for his full recovery and his return alive to his cell from the prison hospital changed to sadness.

Silence briefly blanketed our isolated world, where eight political prisoners were locked up in a building of eight cells in Thayawaddy prison, about 80 kilometers north of Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. All had spent more than a decade behind bars for their political beliefs.

Anger broke the silence—anger at the prison authorities, who were consigning Si Thu to a section of the prison hospital where TB patients were held. Si Thu said: “I want to die here with you, not there.”

We decided to demand that the prison authorities allow Si Thu to remain with us. Yet what could we do to save Si Thu’s life in the confines of our gloomy, unhygienic cells, where little help was to be expected from the outside world?

We had no medicine, no clean water and no fresh, nutritious food. We could only give Si Thu our love, care and humane support.

We felt that if Si Thu fell ill again he would not recover. The rainy season was approaching, a time when seasonal influenza struck many prisoners.

We concentrated on caring for Si Thu and keeping him warm.

One morning, Si Thu said with a soft smile: “The junta has given me a death sentence. I have been prepared for it.”

I couldn’t find any words to console him, and could only regard him with a feeling of unbearable sadness. Our efforts to get anti-retroviral drugs to combat the HIV virus were fruitless.

Finally, the day we had been dreading came and Si Thu fell ill. He died on July 12, 2001, aged only 35.

Si Thu was a prisoner of conscience because of his commitment to the struggle for democracy in Burma. He first became involved in politics as a student in the 1988 uprising.

He was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1991, but later the sentence was changed to 10 years. Although he should have been a free man in July 2001, the junta kept him imprisoned under the terms of a security law—Section 10 (A) of the Law to Safeguard the State against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts.