RANGOON — Burma’s leading political activists and the family members of political prisoners who died in custody have demanded an apology from members of the country’s former military regime and anyone involved in atrocities committed during the junta’s rule.
Thousands of people were locked up on political or trumped up charges during decades of military rule in Burma. In prison, as well facing abuse and torture by officials, inmates were kept in harsh conditions and routinely denied access to medical treatment.
According to advocacy groups, 175 political prisoners died in prisons or interrogation centers throughout the military regime that came to power 1988 following a mass uprising, and was replaced by a nominally civilian government, still made up largely of former generals, in 2011.
During a ceremony in Rangoon on Thursday to honor political prisoners who passed away behind bars, Min Ko Naing, the prominent student leader of 88 Generation Student Group, remembered those who died in custody as “stars that would never fall from the sky.”
He called for those who were in charge during the regime to take responsibility.
“Whether they are in power or not, they have to be responsible for what they have done,” Min Ko Naing told the audience of several hundred, including many relatives of the deceased. “Make them ashamed of what they did and take responsible for their atrocity.
“If they are honest enough to confess their guilt, our national reconciliation process will be a lot easier.”
The event was co-sponsored by Assistant Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP) and the Former Political Prisoners Society in order to hand over monetary assistance for the family members of 54 deceased political prisoners for the first time. Each family received nearly US$1,000.
Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of AAPP, said the ceremony was aimed to mark for the record that there were political prisoners that died during their detention, and hopefully to help toward finding the truth about what happened to them.
“We don’t want revenge. But we want the former military regime to know that they committed these bad things, and [to consider] how can they collaborate to prevent the history repeating,” said Bo Kyi.
“I want to request to those responsible for atrocities to apologize to the victims and their families.”
Win Tin, one of the founding members of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, also said in a speech at the event that members of the former military regime, and even current president Thein Sein, a former general, must apologize to the family members of the political prisoners who died in their custody.
However, he said, “An apology is not the end of the story. Every political prisoner has their family. The government is responsible for rehabilitation program for them too.”
The government has claimed that a widespread presidential amnesty to coincide with the New Year will mean no more political prisoners will remain in Burma, although AAPP insists 46 prisoners were still jailed as of Thursday.
Win Tin thanked the government for the release, but warned leaders against falling back on the use of incarceration against political opponents.
“If they make more arrests later, we will condemn it,” he said.
Ko Ko Gyi, another 88 Generation Students Group leader, said that as long as the former military regime doesn’t confess what they did, national reconciliation will be “up in the air.”
“It doesn’t make sense that even most responsible person for the atrocities said he did it as he was ordered,” he said, referring to former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who recently rejected calls to apologize, insisting that political prisoners under the regime were “guilty.”
“We don’t mean convict them. Just to take responsibility,” Ko Ko Gyi added.
Yin Hla’s late husband, Aung May Thu, was one of the political prisoners recorded to have died during detention. He died after prison authorities denied him medical treatment for a stomach ulcer.
“I feel very sad and the event makes me think of my husband,” the 65-year-old said. “At the same time I feel proud as my husband is honored.”
Like many others who attended the event, she has one wish: an apology from the military regime.
“They killed my husband,” she said. “Not only him but all the political prisoners who died during their detention.
“I have no hatred or desire for revenge, but please just say: ‘Sorry, I did it.’ Then I will wipe the slate clean.”