Women Political Prisoners Demand Acknowledgment of Their Suffering

By Nyein Nyein 21 June 2017

YANGON – We bear no grudge, but we cannot forget, said Daw Aye Aye Than, a 64-year-old former prisoner of conscience in Yangon, who was detained in the notorious Insein Prison for eleven months in 1998 without any charge.

Her views reflect those of other former political prisoners now searching for an acknowledgment of what happened to them decades ago under the military government.

“People think we have gained democracy easily, but we believe people, especially the younger generation, should know that such achievements have been yielded from those who made sacrifices,” said Daw Aye Aye Than.

She clearly recalled what had happened almost two decades ago, when she was put into prison “without any particular charge,” and had to pledge by signing, upon her release that she “would not tell others” that she had been in Insein Prison for 11 months.

As a mother of three children, Daw Aye Aye Than said worried about her family and her young female colleagues.

“It really damaged the dignity of a person,” she added, “I was 45 years old when it happened in 1998. What if I had been a teenager? Society would think something bad of me when I was away, for having baby without a husband.“

For two decades, she has not kept silent. “It is my responsibility to keep making my voice heard about such injustices and such violations of basic human rights,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Many other female former prisoners of conscience have put effort toward retelling their experiences, particularly concerning inhumane treatment and gender-based violence while in detention.

In transitioning Myanmar, injustices on many issues are raised through protest, as civil society groups have grown stronger.

However, talk about past wrongs remains rarely heard. Those who were key figures in the democracy movement and who endured long prison sentences frequently do not raise their voices against perpetrators like the Tatmadaw, in an effort to safeguard the process of peace and national reconciliation prioritized by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Dozens of women who were once prisoners of conscience want to change that. They urge “the acknowledgment of injustices” that happened under the military junta, while saying that they bear no grudge against those who violated their rights during the dictatorship in Myanmar.

Since 2014, they have given themselves time to come together to share their experiences and to raise their voices at events held by the Vimutti Women Organization, a psychosocial support group providing outreach to women who were former political prisoners, and the family members of such detainees. They say the organization “creates a space for them to unburden” their past and current experiences.

Vimutti is an ancient Pali word meaning “freedom.” The group started in 2009 to organize rehabilitation activities for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which struck the country in 2008, and began providing women’s empowerment activities in the affected communities.

On Tuesday, Vimutti also held a talk in Yangon with former political prisoners, to share their views on how they want to move forward in the future, how justice can be sought by revealing past experiences, and how they can contribute to stopping such detentions.

Five women shared their experiences on the panel, highlighting how they were treated in prisons and interrogating centers.

One instance shared involved sexual harassment faced by female inmates in Insein: they were looked upon from above by the male wardens while they were bathing in their white prison uniforms.

“Even though former political prisoners seem somewhat emotionally stronger than ordinary people, we also need psychosocial support, social care and acknowledgement,” said Daw Khin Mi Mi Khine, the director and the cofounder of the Vimutti Women Organization.

She explained, “Acknowledging the truth is not about the revenge. We think the acknowledgment can boost our morale,” adding that the former political prisoners also need trauma healing support to overcome their nightmares from the past.

Daw Khin Mi Mi Khine was herself a political prisoner, arrested four times in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2013. She had to stay in prison for six months to one and half years the latter three times. She was also an NLD member until 2004.

From the government, Daw Khin Mi Mi Khine wants an acknowledgment of what happened to her and others—not only prisoners of conscience, but also Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as a result of longstanding civil war—adding that the perpetrators should also apologize to those who suffered.

“We should not keep allowing the perpetrators to defend what they did as ‘just following orders.’ If they continue accepting such abuses as the right things to do, and if we continue allowing it, our generation will have to further experience such abuses,” Daw Khin Mi Mi Khine said.