The following testimony was given by a Karen farmer who spent 3 years as a political prisoner in the SLORC's notorious Insein Prison near Rangoon. He was released in October 1993, and describes the current conditions for political and other prisoners in Insein Prison. Note especially his comments on the SLORC's much-publicized release of political prisoners, and on what happens when a foreigner is allowed to visit the prison to see the conditions. Such visits are becoming more common; the SLORC recently allowed UN Special Rapporteur on Burma Professor Yozo Yokota to go to the prison, and is also including Insein Prison visits in the all-expense-paid holidays it is now offering to U.S. Congressmen and Senators to come and see how wonderful life is in Burma under the SLORC.
This man's name has been changed, and some personal details have been omitted, in order to protect his friends and fellow villagers against SLORC retaliation.
NAME: Saw Winston Htoo SEX: M AGE: 39
ADDRESS: Nyaunglebin District
FAMILY: Karen Christian, married with 4 children aged 5-17
My village is in an area that is completely under SLORC control. We are west of the Sittang River, so Karen troops have almost never been there - only once or twice. I was arrested on October 1, 1989 with some friends. We were coming back after driving some bullocks to a place near the Thailand border so they could be sold. They weren't our bullocks, we were just working for the owner. When the SLORC captured us I was just 7 miles from my home village. There were 7 of us, but they only caught 5, because the other two ran away. They accused us of having no travel documents, and also because we had one or two magazines which they say are "illegal" - magazines of the KNU [Karen National Union] and the Burmese students.
They took us to the office of the 57 Regiment commander at Shwegyin, and locked us in a room all together. They tied our wrists with rope, kicked us with their boots, beat us and interrogated us. For the first 5 days they gave us no food. After 5 days, they transferred our case to the police, but for security we were still kept in the same place in custody of the military. This lasted for 3 months. During this time there was no more torture and they didn't keep us tied up. They gave us just a little food. In the daytime we had to do work around the army compound, like clearing the compound and making buildings, and at night we were locked up.
Then the police transferred our case to the military tribunal at Pegu. We were transferred to Pegu Jail and kept there until one day about 3 months later they took us to appear in the military court. The judges were 3 army colonels in uniform. The judge asked us to admit our mistakes, and we did because there was no alternative. He said, "Have you made mistakes?", and we said, "Yes, we have made the mistake of taking bullocks to sell in the KNU area." The judge said, "Yes, this was a mistake. The penalties are 3, 5, or 7 years." We had no chance to explain anything, because the judge said if we prolonged the hearing, our sentences would be increased. If you try to argue your sentence will be longer, but if you simply admit it then they will give you a concession. Three of my friends were sentenced to 3 years each, and they sentenced me and the old man to 5 years each. I think the old man and I got longer sentences because we had one or two magazines and some money when we were arrested, but I'm not sure because the judge didn't explain it. The three men who got 3 years all served their sentences in Insein and then were released. The old man's name was U Saw Bee; he was 54. He died in Insein Prison in 1992, from a cerebral haemorrhage because of high blood pressure.
All five of us were put under the Political Prisoners Act. There are three sections: 17/1, 8/3, and 5J. We were sentenced under sections 17/1 and 8/3. They sent us to Insein Prison on March 29, 1990. At Insein, we were put in Ward 5; there are 7 big wards. Ward 5 had eight rooms. I was put in a room 100 feet by 50 feet, while the others were put in different rooms. In my room there were 140 prisoners. Each room has about 15 or 20 political prisoners in among all the others. There was very little room for us to sleep - we all had to keep our bodies straight, and many of us had to sleep on our sides. There were only 5 or 6 sleeping mats in the whole room, so we all had to sleep on the cement floor. They allowed us to have a bath once a day. We had to line up in rows of 5 men at a time, and we were allowed 5 bowls of water, then soap, then 7 more bowls of water. But there were many problems - sometimes there was no water supply, so they wouldn't let us take a bath and we could hardly even get water to drink. There were latrines in 2 places - outside of the room for the daytime, and in the room at night. The latrines always had guards, and to use them you had to bribe the guard with 2 cheroots. The latrine was just a bucket, with no water. You could use paper if you could get some, but we used to beg scraps of cloth from the men who worked in the sewing workshop out in the compound. he feeding system was like the bathing system - we had to sit 5 in a row while the cooks brought rice, one plate each. Then you go yourself to get bean paste and fishpaste.
In Insein Prison there are about 9,900 or 10,000 prisoners altogether. There are 500 political prisoners, who are in wards 3, 4, and 5, and also in single cells and other special places. In my room, there were 3 or 4 different kinds of prisoners, and more than 20 political prisoners. Some were monks, and students from 1988 sentenced under Section 5J and Section 1221 - high treason, and revolt against the State. We had to work cultivating crops for the jail workers and cleaning the jail wards; as we were political prisoners, they couldn't send us to do road construction and other work outside the jail. Inside the jail, we got the same treatment as the criminal prisoners. The guards said, "If you've come to prison, you must live as a prisoner. All the same."
Many times I saw prisoners being beaten and tortured, usually for stealing, gambling or quarrelling. First the guards beat them with a rubber pipe, and then they took them to the gravel path. They've made a gravel path, and they order the victim to crawl along it on his elbows and knees. They follow him with 2 or 3 dogs biting his legs. To escape their biting, the victim tries to crawl back to the cell as fast as he can on the gravel, so he scrapes all the skin off his elbows and legs. I saw them do this at least once or twice a month, especially in hot season, because in hot season it gets very hot and we're all in a very confined area, so there are more quarrels. This never happened to me - the political prisoners seldom quarrelled.
When we had fever they never gave us any medicine. If it gets very bad then they send you to the prison hospital, where many people die. The sick prisoners want to go to the hospital, but the guards never send them there until it's already too late, so many die once they get to the hospital. I got fever but I didn't want to go to their hospital, because I was afraid of their dirty needles and contagious diseases. At the hospital they have doctors, but not enough medicines. Once in 1991, all the political and other prisoners in my ward held a hunger strike to demand proper health care and the right to read the newspapers, but none of our demands were granted. They said if we made our demands individually they'd listen to us, but if we made united demands they wouldn't listen. Then they tortured some of our hunger strike leaders with the dogs on the gravel path.
While I was there, about 5 people in my room died. People who finished their sentences were released, but more prisoners always came. Twice in 1992 and 1993 they announced that they were going to release political prisoners, but then they only released those who had no more than 1 or 2 months left of their sentences anyway. Since then, there are still just as many new political prisoners arriving as ever before. Whenever any room is available, more prisoners come in, both political and others. Nothing at all has changed since I first arrived there.
We sometimes heard that foreigners were coming to see the jail and the prisoners' conditions. When this happened, the officials didn't show them our wards; they showed them the wing which is used for training jail administration workers. The trainees put on convicts' dress and were presented to them as prisoners. The beds, mosquito nets and blankets that were shown to the foreigners are not for prisoners, they're for jail system trainees. On the beds in the prison hospital, they were only shown those men who had paid 500 Kyat or more to bribe the doctor to let them take a rest in the hospital. These men were not really sick. All the real patients had been moved back into the cells with us two or three days ahead. Then after the guests left, they were called back to the hospital. I don't know if any of them got worse or died because of this.
The prison dress was made of cotton - each prisoner gets one shirt and one longyi [Burmese sarong]. The prison rule is that prisoners must get new clothes once every 6 months, but this rule is not followed. In my room there were 7 monks. All of them were political prisoners, and all had been forced to disrobe. When they were first captured, the soldiers just took their robes and forced them to put on civilian prison clothes. In the prison, all of them kept on practising as monks, and only eating one meal a day, but the guards treated them the same as everyone else. There is a group in the prison which is responsible for keeping all the prisoners' hair cut, but the guards wouldn't allow the monks to shave their heads. Their names were:
|Ashin Nyana Wontha
Ashin Sandaw Baw Ta
Ashin Wi La Tha
Ashin Zaw Tika
Ashin Pinya Dippa
Ashin Ku Ma Ra
Ashin Dhamma Sara
Htun Htun Win
They were from 2 different monasteries in Yankin, near Rangoon. They had all been in since 1991, sentenced under section 5J for signing the monks' boycott petition. [This was the petition to join the Buddhist monks' religious boycott of the military, which was instigated due to the SLORC's massacres of Buddhist monks, desecration of Buddhist temples and general disregard for the human and religious rights of the people]. There were also 3 senior reverend monks who had refused to disrobe. They were kept all in one cell, in a part of the prison separate from us. I heard that a warder said to them, "You can't go on like monks - we treat everyone equally here." So one of the reverend monks said, "If that's so, then let us see you treat your mother and sisters the same way as you treat us." The warder didn't say anything, and left them.
I was released on October 19, 1993 because I finished my term. If a man is sentenced by a civil court to 5 years, then he can leave after three and a half. But I was sentenced by a military tribunal, so the 6 months I spent in custody before my trial weren't counted towards my sentence, and they held me for 4 years altogether. I wasn't released as part of any amnesty, but because I'd served my whole term. It's the same with all the political prisoners they release.