Commentary / World

When political expression leads to jail

by Richard Humphries

Bo Kyi speaks English in a soft voice. He learned it the hard way, unable to see his teacher. They were political prisoners in adjoining cells in Myanmar’s Thayawaddy Prison . His teacher whispered to him while the guards were away. Then Bo Kyi used a piece of brick to write out new words on his cell wall.

If the ethnic question represents one side of Myanmar’s profound social failure, the lack of political consensus is the other. Freedom of expression does not exist. To call or campaign for political rights often means jail. At least 2,500 political prisoners are currently in some 20 prisons throughout Myanmar.

Bo Kyi, a student political activist, was first arrested in Yangon on March 16, 1990 and sentenced to three years with hard labor. After his release, he was rearrested on July 17, 1994 and given the same sentence. He served his sentences at three prisons: Insein, Mandalay and Thayawaddy. After the second release, military intelligence officers visited his home at least once a week to discuss his “opinions” and often threatened him with rearrest. When they came to his house to do just that on Aug. 28, 1999, luckily he was away.

Now Bo Kyi is in Thailand. He and 14 other ex-political prisoners have formed an organization called the Safeguard Association for Political Prisoners in Burma. The organization has five goals: to report on the oppression of political prisoners; to encourage international support; to secure human rights for political prisoners; to protect them from intimidation after release; and to aid them after release, both mentally and physically. Their organization is also providing concerned NGOs like Amnesty International with information on prison conditions.

And those conditions are bad. The regime mixes political prisoners with common criminals and encourages the latter to take advantage of the former. Food is monotonous and inadequate: rice, curry, fish paste and a watery, ersatz soup called “talapaw.” “We cannot survive on only the food given by the jail, it’s not enough,” said Bo Kyi. “We depend on our families. Mine provided me (with food) regularly, twice a month, so I was able to share with my comrades.”

Not all families can afford to help their imprisoned relatives and some jails are isolated. Bo Kyi spoke of Myingyan Prison, in central Myanmar, as one where conditions were much worse. No one wanted to be sent there.

“That area is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Each prisoner is allowed just two pieces of clothing and one blanket. In other prisons you can share your food but not in Myingyan. If your family can’t support you, you will eat only the food given by the prison.” One of Bo Kyi’s friends, Saw Eh Dah, got sick and died there, after just one year of malnutrition and severe beatings.

Beatings are frequent in Myanmar’s jails. Sometimes it’s for surreal infractions, like failure to capture a quota of 100 flies in a day. Other times it’s for political activity, real or suspected. Additional intimidation techniques used in these jails include sleep deprivation, blindfolding and isolation in small, excessively bright or darkened cells.

Aside from the brutal elements of prison life, just getting through each day requires mental strength. “Time is slow,” Bo Kyi says. “Today, tomorrow, yesterday are the same. The typical life is routine. I am awakened at 5:30 in the morning. At that time I must sit on my knees for at least 30 minutes. Then I walk around the room. Since I am a Buddhist, sometimes I meditate. I try to think about what was wrong in the past and what was right.”

The recent arrest and imprisonment of two British nationals, James Mawdsley and Rachel Goldwyn, briefly focused world attention on Myanmar’s jails. Goldwyn was eventually let go, but Bo Kyi and his comrades had difficulty understanding some of her reasoning upon release. She seemed out of her depth. Mawdsley was different. “Especially him, he is now in Kengtung Prison and we really do honor him, for his courage and what he is doing there.”

The SAPPB possess a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democracy leader, with her words, “There will be change because all the military have are guns.” Ironically, one of the SAPPB members was a private in the Myanmar Army in 1988. He refused to fire on the crowds of prodemocracy demonstrators and deserted. For that he was sentenced to 12 years in jail.