Myanmar Junta Putting Lives of Political Prisoners at Risk in COVID-19 Prison Outbreaks

By The Irrawaddy 16 July 2021

The military regime has imposed a lockdown in three prisons because of spiking COVID-19 cases, raising fears for the fate of the thousands of political prisoners detained by the junta, but the number of infected detainees remains unknown.

Insein Prison in Yangon was locked down on July 8. Taungoo Prison in Bago Region and Myaungmya Prison in Ayeyarwady Region were locked down in the last week of June.

Prisons in Myanmar are ill-equipped to treat COVID-19 patients, with only Insein Prison having the facilities to treat coronavirus cases. Some infected prisoners have been transferred to outside hospitals.

U Nyan Win, a detained central executive committee member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-time personal lawyer, was sent to Yangon General Hospital on July 11 after the 79-year-old was infected with COVID-19. Dr. Maw Maw Oo, a doctor detained in Insein Prison, is also receiving treatment for coronavirus at Yangon General Hospital.

“U Nyan Win is responding well to treatment. U Maw Maw Oo can be discharged from the hospital tomorrow. And there are no new infections,” U Aye Chan Kyaw, the Correctional Department spokesperson, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The spokesperson denied reports that ousted Yangon Region minister U Naing Ngan Lin and other political prisoners who took care of U Nyan Win in Insein Prison have also caught the virus.

American journalist Danny Fenster, managing editor of local news outlet Frontier Myanmar, is also being held in Insein Prison after being detained at Yangon Airport on May 25. Fenster has COVID-19 symptoms but has received no medical treatment, his family were quoted by the BBC as saying.

“He is not receiving any treatment and hasn’t been diagnosed. We are very disappointed and extremely worried,” said Fenster’s brother.

Thomas Andrew, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, has expressed particular concern for people detained in Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons, as he urged the international community to provide emergency assistance to the country.

“Myanmar’s prison population, including the thousands of political prisoners who have been arbitrarily detained since the coup, are in grave danger. Prisoners, particularly those with underlying conditions, could see their detention become a death sentence,” he warned.

5,269 people were detained by the Myanmar military between Feb. 1 and July 15, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The regime released over 2,200 political prisoners across the country on June 30, but lawyers estimate that around 3,000 political prisoners remain in Insein Prison.

Around 30 prisoners are still receiving treatment in Insein Prison. An infected prison worker and his family are reported to be recovering in Myaungmya Prison. The lockdown in Taungoo Prison has now been lifted and all infected prisoners discharged from hospital, according to U Aye Chan Kyaw.

Most infected persons found in prisons are newly-arrived detainees. They are tested for coronavirus on arrival and only those who test negative are accepted, said U Aye Chan Kyaw.

However, there are concerns about the potential for mass COVID-19 outbreaks due to prison overcrowding.

Lawyers acting for detainees and those who have recently been released said some detainees in Insein Prison were displaying symptoms similar to those of coronavirus and flu.

One lawyer helping the detainees suggested releasing political prisoners on bail to reduce prison overcrowding. Some of the detainees, including NLD senior leaders, have been behind bars since the military launched its Feb. 1 coup.

“This is a deadly pandemic and they [the junta] should not approach it only from a political perspective, but focus on the lives of the detainees and think about what relaxation [of the rules] can be made,” said the lawyer.

The National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government formed to rival the military regime, has accused the junta of acting deliberately so that political prisoners die from COVID-19.

The NUG’s national-level COVID-19 committee has called for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, in response to the rising number of coronavirus infections and deaths in prisons.

“The regime will be responsible for all consequences and harsh action will be taken in accordance with the wishes of the people and law for these inhuman acts,” said NUG minister Dr. Zaw Wai Soe.

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