Mae Sot, Thailand
Published on October 31, 2009 [The Nation, Bangkok]
THE DAY I was arrested was just like any other. I was having lunch with my family, when officers from the Burmese Military Intelligence came to my home and took me away. They shoved me into a car, cuffed my hands behind my back and put a dirty hood over my head. I was forced to lie on the floor so I couldn't be seen, and they pressed guns into my ribs to stop me from crying out.
I was denied food and water for several days. I was blindfolded and repeatedly interrogated. After each answer I gave, I was punched in the stomach so hard it knocked me to the ground. Every time I was forced to stand up and take it, over and over again. I lost all track of time.
I later found out I had held in the interrogation centre for nine days. My "crime" was that I'm a leading member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, a banned organisation in Burma.
That was in 1990 - but it could have been yesterday.
New testimony from political prisoners released under an amnesty in September is remarkably similar to my own. None of it is surprising to me.
Myo Yan Naung Thein, a 35 year-old student leader, was released from Thandwe prison in Arakan State. He was arrested on December 15, 2007, and sentenced to two years in jail. After his release, he described his arrest: "While I was on the phone to my mum at a shop on the corner of Hledan Junction [in Rangoon], two men grabbed me… I shouted out because I thought that they had kidnapped me by mistake. And then one of them got me by the throat, put his hand over my mouth, and pushed me into a taxi. They hooded me and I was forced to lie down in the taxi. One of them sat on top of me."
Describing his own experiences at the interrogation centre, Myo Yan Naung Thein said: "They were very brutal. My hands were tied behind my back, they kicked and punched me. They locked me in a dark wet room with no windows. I didn't know whether it was day or night."
Myo Yan Naung Thein suffers from a neurological disease that has left him unable to walk. He was denied proper medical treatment in prison, another form of psychological torture.
He was one of 7,114 prisoners released by the ruling military regime "on humanitarian grounds". Just 128 of them, like Myo Yan Naung Thein, were political prisoners - less than 2 per cent. More than 2,100 remain in detention centres, prisons and labour camps across Burma.
In the same month as the amnesty, the regime arrested 39 activists, including my friend and colleague Nyi Nyi Aung (also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin), now an American citizen. He, too, was taken to various interrogation centres, where he was kicked and beaten, deprived of food for seven days and questioned throughout the night.
The underlying purpose of torture is to effectively destroy the soul of a human. It is designed to break down the identity of a strong man or woman, turning a union leader, a politician, a student leader, a journalist or a leader of an ethnic group into a non-entity with no connection to the world outside of their torture chamber.
In Burma, the regime uses torture to create a climate of fear, in order to maintain its iron grip on power. Arbitrary arrest, physical and psychological torture, unfair trials, long-term imprisonment and denial of medical care in prison are all intended to crush the human spirit of pro-democracy activists.
But there is another, unintended, effect of torture. For those of us who share that experience, it creates an unbreakable bond between us. I co-founded the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) with my friend Ko Tate Naing nearly ten years ago.
We heard each other's screams under torture. Since we founded AAPP in 2000, we have documented hundreds of accounts of torture in Burma's interrogation centres, prisons and labour camps. Even though Burmese domestic law and international law forbids torture, no officials are ever held accountable their actions. We will never turn our backs on each other, or our friends and colleagues in prison. As Myo Yan Naung Thein said after his release, "Who will keep fighting if we don't? We have to carry on."
There is no doubt about it: torture is state policy in Burma.
The latest accounts are further evidence of the deteriorating human rights situation in my country. Over the past two months, human rights groups have documented increased attacks against civilian populations in ethnic nationality areas; more cases of rape and sexual violence by Burmese army soldiers and many instances of forced labour.
There has been renewed debate about the role of sanctions against Burma and strategies of engagement with the regime by the US and other countries. I welcome the move by Aung San Suu Kyi to contribute to the debate on sanctions with the military regime and ambassadors from the West in Burma. As a political prisoner herself, I have no doubt that she will have respect for human rights at the heart of that position.
Until there are concrete improvements on human rights, sanctions cannot and must not be lifted. Torture must stop, all political prisoners must be released and human rights violations across the country must cease. The generals must not be allowed to stifle the screams from Burma's prisons.