Friday, June 5, 2009

A hard reign continues in Myanmar

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By Rajeshree Sisodia

MAE SOT, Thailand - For three days in 1989, Htay Aung was blindfolded and forced to crouch on the balls of his feet with his hands behind his neck in an interrogation cell. Then the questions would start.

His tormentors, in the Military Intelligence (MI) interrogation camp in Myanmar's former capital Yangon, fired questions like rifle shots: "Why did you get involved in political activities?"; "What were you doing?"; "Who else is helping you?" His answers were always wrong. Finally, he shouted back: "Which students have you arrested?" Then the blows rained down.

Intelligence officers beat Htay Aung with aluminum and rubber truncheons on his calves and back. Last month, during a series of interviews conducted in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, he replicated the position he was forced to stand in 20 years ago. This is his story and that of others like him.

Htay Aung was lucky; he managed to escape. The continued detention and ongoing trial of Myanmar's most famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Laureate and leader of Myanmar's main opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD), has helped train the world's gaze onto thousands of other dissidents currently in jail in Myanmar.

The number - which stands at 2,156 - is the highest figure of long-standing political prisoners the country has seen since at least 1988, according to Amnesty International. As recently as last November, more than 200 people were sentenced to prison terms of between 65 and 104 years each.

Many of their detentions began much like Htay Aung's. It was a morning in August 1989 when seven plain-clothes Special Branch police officers came to the home in Yangon that Htay Aung, a student leader in the country's 1988 mass pro-democracy uprisings, shared with his mother and seven siblings. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken to the interrogation camp.

"I fell down a few times when I was forced to stand in that position. They would not let me sleep, eat or drink water. It was like that for three days. For the first two days, they would not let me go to the toilet. I never told them who I was helping on the outside. That time, they did not torture me too much," said the 45-year-old with a smile. After three days of beatings, Htay Aung was transferred to Insein prison, a maximum-security facility and the largest of Myanmar's jails. He was not allowed to see a lawyer or his family.

After spending two months in a windowless cell where his toilet was a hole in the ground, he was released without explanation and without being charged.

The beatings and detention had little effect. Htay Aung continued to work for an underground movement called the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), a nationwide student group that spearheaded the 1988 uprisings. It cost him more than a decade in prison after he was re-arrested three times; first in 1990 and twice in 1996.

"I was taken to the same camp, and to Insein, and had the same torture. They were becoming like second homes to me, the camp and the prison. I got to see my old friends in prison. We didn't want to be beaten or to be arrested or to die. It's normal to feel fear. I felt afraid [but] some of our friends were missing, some arrested, some were beaten. At that time, we knew that if our country had democracy, these horrible things would not happen, so we wanted that. I hated the regime," he said.

Htay Aung came under the scrutiny of the MI again in 2007. Fearing re-arrest, he fled Myanmar in November 2008 and crossed illegally into Thailand. It was a self-enforced exile that led him to his new home in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

A town on the brink
The Moei River cuts along the western flank of Mae Sot, on Thailand's western border with Myanmar. The "Friendship Bridge" with its guards and immigration offices is the official artery into Thailand, across the water from the Myanmar town of Myawaddy. Visitors from Myanmar are issued day passes when the crossing opens daily from 6am to 6pm. Others leave Myanmar as long-term migrants looking for work and better lives.

Trickles of former political prisoners like Htay Aung also slip across in secret. Mae Sot sprang to life as a trading post between the two countries in the 1990s after Myanmar's military regime legalized cross-border trade. Myanmar migrants, official and illegal, soon began to leave for Thailand via the town, a hub where gems and teak timber are siphoned off to the international market. Most of Mae Sot's 150,000 people are from Myanmar; migrants, refugees and those on the payroll of the MI.

"They're here. I don't now how many, mostly informers. They know where I am and what I am doing," said Bo Kyi, the 44-year-old activist who runs the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The group has campaigned for Myanmar's political prisoners, monitored their well-being and provided advice to their families since 2000.

Bo Kyi was also imprisoned by the junta for being a leader in the mass protests of 1988; a seminal point in Myanmar's history that saw millions of unarmed demonstrators, led by students, protest against the dictatorship's one-party rule and a crumbling economy. The groundswell of dissent was brutally suppressed. Official estimates vary but some 3,000 men and women were believed to have been killed when the Tatmadaw, the name of Myanmar's military, opened fire.

"I was frightened, but since I became involved in the struggle, I knew if I was lucky I would stay alive. But I knew that I would be arrested sooner or later," he said. Bo Kyi was arrested three times by the MI, in 1989, 1990 and 1994. The first time, Bo Kyi escaped, but his luck ran out in 1990 and he was arrested. On April 2, 1990, he appeared before a closed military court, under Myanmar's 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, in Insein prison and was convicted.

"In the court, the military officer asked me one question; 'Did you commit any crime?'. I replied, 'Absolutely not'. He replied: "Three years' imprisonment with hard labor'. I had no lawyer, no family members there and no judges, just three military officers, one from the army, navy and air force. I expected more than three years. I expected 10 or 20 years," said Bo Kyi.

He served his sentence in Insein and Mandalay prisons before being released on his 28th birthday. He resumed pro-democracy campaigning after his release and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1994 for five years.

"During the '88 uprising, I saw friends who were killed, shot before my own eyes. We can't forget their faces. They died because they wanted to change the political system to a democratic one. That's what they wanted; they sacrificed. Many of my colleagues remain in prison, so how can I stay away?" he asked.

Outside, the AAPP offices were alive with activity. A whiteboard on one of the walls kept a running tally of arrests of dissidents. Myanmar's most famous daughter, Suu Kyi, looks down from a poster inside the association's ground-floor museum. Iron shackles political detainees are forced to wear and rubber truncheons used to beat prisoners are among the exhibits smuggled out of Myanmar now on display. Rows of photographs of men and women in detention line the walls. Some stare blankly, others smile. Name after name; Su Su Nway, Than Than Htay, Khin Htar Aye; the list goes on, until names seem pointless; catalogues of lives Myanmar's junta is trying to destroy, resistance it is trying to break.

Thousands of political dissidents remain in detention in Myanmar. The AAPP estimates about 10,000 former political prisoners still live inside the country and continue to face the threat of imprisonment.

An ever-tightening grip
It is clear the Myanmar's junta is tightening its stranglehold over its people. The past several years have seen dissidents in custody face a growing prospect of having their prison terms extended. Those facing trial now are also more likely to be handed out long sentences. The junta has also introduced a neighborhood watch system by which ordinary people are coerced to form committees and spy on their neighbors.

The policy is a continuation of the regime's increasing crackdown since the Saffron Revolution in 2007, when more than 4,000 people were rounded up and detained after thousands of lay people and monks took to the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms. The program is also a means to ensure elections scheduled to take place next year progress trouble-free and an attempt by the junta to smother any human-rights movement inside Myanmar. The Orwellian methods the regime is using to frighten its 55 million people appear to be working.

Myanmar's recent history reads like a glossary of human-rights abuses. The regime's systematic use of rape, torture, detention, extra-judicial killings, forced labor and land confiscation - alongside intermittent ethnic insurgencies - have been well documented.

It wasn't always like this. When Myanmar freed itself from British rule in 1948, with Burmese revolutionary leader and Suu Kyi's father Bogyoke Aung San at the helm, the Union of Burma was born and the country became an independent democratic republic. Its people had high hopes.

All that changed in 1962 when General Ne Win seized power in a violent coup and established a socialist military government. The generals were hell bent on the "Burmese way to socialism" - a disastrous mix of political and economic policies that propelled Myanmar, a country the World Bank in the 1950s predicted would become one of Asia's economic success stories, into poverty and repression.

So began the nation's downward spiral as the junta began to implement increasingly isolationist political and economic policies and deprived its people of democracy, human rights, free speech, education and healthcare.

The regime's, or State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC), continued mishandling of its economy has led to widespread suffering. While neighboring countries including Thailand, China and India have witnessed economic growth in recent years, the junta's isolation and mismanagement mean the average citizen is no better off now than 20 years ago. Most earn less than a dollar a day and the average yearly salary is US$286. Meanwhile, the junta has spent around $330 million a year on its military, more than four times the amount it invests annually on education and healthcare combined.

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