Sunday, 3 August 2008

Burma's Prisons a Caldron of Protest Fury

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008

RANGOON -- The promise of Burma's future begins in its prisons.

Inside, dissidents detained by the military junta tapped out messages on water pipes and listened to them echo from one cell to the next. They spelled words by knocking on walls, each series of sounds a letter of the alphabet. Sometimes they bribed guards with cigarettes to pass along coded messages in necklaces made of pebbles and strings of plastic bags.

Former Burmese political detainees say they found countless ways to communicate, defying their isolation and a system that was designed to break their will. For many, life behind the walls instead became a rite of passage toward political maturity.

"Prison happens to be the longest-running political seminar in Burma," said a scholar and political activist who spent 15 years behind bars for writings that were deemed subversive to the junta. "You could say things there that you couldn't outside, and we observed anniversaries that we couldn't in normal life."

Human rights groups say more than 1,800 political detainees languish long-term in about 20 prisons and labor camps in Burma, also called Myanmar. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese rights group based in Thailand, has documented "endemic" torture in them. Countless more people have disappeared altogether or been locked up for shorter stints.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had been monitoring conditions in centers across the country for six years. But in late 2005, the junta cut off its observers' access. The group's last attempt to engage the junta, on June 15, has yet to receive a positive response, said Christian Brunner, ICRC's Asia region head.

In the Red Cross's absence, indignities to political and criminal detainees remain manifold, according to recently released prisoners, outside observers and a prison lawyer.

They are beaten with bamboo canes. Their flesh is torn by iron rods that are rolled up and down their shins. They are forced to crawl over broken glass or sharpened gravel; deprived of sleep or water; shackled in painful positions; trapped in cells too small for them to stand upright; and surrounded by barking dogs. Others spend years in solitary confinement.

Some have died under the strain, and some have slipped into insanity.

Yet dissidents have often emerged unbroken, hardier or more pragmatic in their beliefs and more resolute that change will come from their actions. Time behind bars can be a vindication of their struggles, they said. Once through, they feel they have nothing else to fear -- and often return straight to activism.

For some, an ordinary life is forever elusive. "I want to live out of water, but I can't get on the shore," said a member of a new clandestine opposition group, the 88 Generation Students, explaining why its founders felt compelled to turn again to politics within weeks of their release after nearly two decades in and out of prison.

Now in their 40s, most of the group's founders were first rounded up as hotheaded university students who helped steer a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Bound for professions in medicine, engineering or law, many never graduated. The prisons became their university.

"In '88, our generation didn't know anything about politics," said a Rangoon teacher jailed for five years in the aftermath of the uprising. He was 21 when he was arrested. "We cared [only] about brutal repression. We saw it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears."

Under a tarpaulin canopy at an empty tea shop one recent afternoon, he lighted his second cigarette in minutes and paused to watch the smoke mingle with a monsoon downpour.

In prison, he said, "you know who your real friends are; you learn the meaning of 'friend.' We shared everything we had: our food and all our knowledge."

He and two prison mates tore apart an old English primer, the only book that one of them had managed to have smuggled inside. They took turns reading and hiding the pieces, burying them in the soil outside their cells. From the pages he learned to speak English.

In their cells or in snatched moments in the prison yards, they could encounter a spectrum of dissidents whom they might never otherwise have met -- or had a chance to clash with. "I remember in my first months in Insein Prison, some young political prisoners came to ask me to do something for them, because the communists were waiting to 'dye them pink,' " the scholar said.

It was in jail that a Rangoon University student, now 29, said he met elected members from the opposition National League for Democracy, ethnic leaders and members of countless dissident groups. "I saw the future of Burma in the prisons," he said.

He heard them fiercely arguing and saw them give up visions they had once held, he said. The divides were revelatory. Democracy in the country would come, he concluded, only with "a proper understanding of each other. To do that, we need to improve the education. . . . We need better spirituality, better tolerance and better compassion."

To counter the hopelessness, many detainees said they relied on meditation. For others, the only cure was a chance to fight again beyond prison walls.

"You can't even see the sky. No stars. No moon. No sun, " said Win Naing, 71, who was once part of the political party of U Nu, the prime minister deposed in a 1962 military coup. For years, Win Naing has led an unspecified number of national politicians in a loose, unofficial opposition group, because, he said, a democracy requires multiple parties.

But his detention last year risked all that. "I thought I wouldn't be released for 20 or 30 years. I was almost totally hopeless," he said. "If I get released, I thought, I shouldn't get involved in politics."

After 35 days of detention in Insein, Rangoon's most notorious prison, his release came as a total surprise. And within two months, with his health largely back to normal, he had taken up his activities again.

"In Burma there is a saying: You can't stop yourself from getting up and dancing when you hear the music," he said. "When I heard the music of politics, when many came to see me . . . things changed. I changed. I thought, what the heck."

Outside the walls, behind this former capital's surface scars of broken windowpanes and mildewed buildings choked with vegetation, the wounds of the detention system reach deep into Burmese society.

One recent evening, a university lecturer sat on the concrete floor of her living room, clutching a pillow to her stomach as if to draw solace from it. She talked of being racked by "mental torture," a mix of depression and anxiety from years spent anguishing over her imprisoned husband, an opposition politician.

And a teacher said he went for weeks with no news from a close colleague who was to fly out of the country on a prestigious foreign fellowship. It turned out that for having spontaneously joined thousands in street protests last September, he was hunted down by intelligence agents who caught him two months later. The colleague later turned up at Insein. Word from his mother was that he could no longer walk.

It is a system in which a lawyer fights a largely futile battle against bureaucracy, shuttling daily back and forth from a special tribunal at the prison to defend the rights of political detainees before a judge who generally will send them to prison regardless, often on a technicality.

In his Rangoon office, he rifled through a dusty tome that dated to the British colonial era to explain the terms under which 16 prominent dissidents, including the 88 leaders, have been held without trial since their arrest last August, he said.

Asked whether he had ever secured the release of a political detainee, he thought a moment, set down his cup of tea and related the lone incident of his 27-year career: accusations against a politician client turned out to be so outlandish that a 10-year sentence was revoked.

For being caught one night with an anti-government pamphlet, the once starry-eyed Rangoon University student served seven years. He was lucky, he said. For being caught with two pamphlets, friends netted double the sentence. He described enduring beatings, hours in shackles and weeks in solitary confinement. When he was transferred to another prison far upcountry, his mother never knew where he was.

Worst of all, he said, was his hunger for ideas. To feed his mind, he said, he sometimes used a piece of broken pottery to scrawl on the cold concrete, struggling to recall parts of beloved stories by British novelist Somerset Maugham.

Or he would bribe a criminal to bring him a prison-made cheroot, a cone-shaped cigarette. Then he'd slowly unpeel its leafy layers to reveal a thumb-size square of gluey state newspaper, and with it a snippet of information from the world outside his cell.

Now he smuggles reading material -- often about democracy -- to friends still inside.

Sometimes he returns from a prison visit with a poem. A poet he befriended recently wrote about the insanity of living within its walls:
The white color of the moonlight,
Sticking like a sword inside that very wall,
Will make the demand
For the rest of your life to be numb to thoughts,
For your sorrows to swell,
For your philosophy to be always aching.

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