- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

MAE SOT, Thailand — As Myo Myint tells it, his torturers opened the door to a large room heaving with naked prisoners, some moaning, others unconscious, all lying soaked in their own blood and feces, and screamed at him: “If you don’t tell us everything, you will be joining them.”

That, he said, was his shattering entry into Burma’s gulag, a network of some 40 interrogation centers, 43 prisons and more than 60 labor camps through which thousands have passed, often for the mildest dissent against the country’s military rulers.

“He’s gone to Moscow,” is the term people here use for someone hauled off to Insein Prison in Rangoon.

The junta began filling the camps and prisons shortly after crushing a nationwide anti-military uprising 18 years ago. The first large batch of arrivals were the pro-democracy winners of the 1990 general election.

Myo Myint, now 43, said he endured 14 years, 10 months and 16 days in these brutal confines. The ex-soldier fled to Thailand after his release, joining a band of freed prisoners who are documenting their ordeal on paper and in a small museum in the northwest border town of Mae Sot.

“I experienced such hardship in prison that as long as there are political prisoners I will work for them,” he said. He survived, he thinks, “by believing in democracy.”

Torture victims unite

Founded in 2000, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners now numbers more than 100 men and women along the Thai-Burmese border as well as in the United States, Norway and elsewhere. All say they were tortured.

Supported by the Dutch government and the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, the group helps with mental and physical rehabilitation and financial aid for the neediest former prisoners, delivered clandestinely through a chain of couriers. This year, schooling for 200 children of jailed mothers and fathers will also be funded.

In grisly detail, the group reports on the regime’s array of torture and degradation techniques. Survivors tell of homosexual rape, electric shock to the genitals, partial suffocation by water, burning of flesh with hot wax and being made to stand for hours in tubs of urine and feces.

In what survivors describe as a grotesque perversion of Burmese culture, prisoners are ordered to perform the traditional Semigwa dance, and are mercilessly beaten if they fail to execute its intricate postures or to please the torturers with their singing.

Victims describe the searing mental impact of seeing others being tortured, or of being escorted to the prison gate and then, within sight of welcoming relatives, rearrested to serve more time.

Jailers’ names passed on

Such accounts — including lists of jailers and torturers by name and location — are passed on to international human rights organizations in hopes they will one day serve as evidence in court.

Regime spokesmen were not available for comment on the claims, but the government has repeatedly denied using torture or inflicting other abuses on prisoners. Last July, 249 prisoners were freed, 118 of them from Insein, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited prisons and labor camps across Burma, renamed Myanmar by the military regime. The committee never details its findings, so independent corroboration of the prisoners’ accounts is not available.

Foreign monitoring groups report some improvement in conditions since the Red Cross visits began in 1999. But Brad Adams of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said: “We are very, very confident that torture continues. It’s an instrument of policy. This is not a country where it happens by chance, committed by a few rotten apples.”

“They try to kill our beliefs,” said John Glenn as he guided visitors through the prisoners’ association museum. The 36-year-old former biology student, who is named for the American astronaut, said he spent two years in Insein for handing out a mildly critical pamphlet.

Survival items displayed

Purposely stark and windowless like a prison cell, the exhibition begins with photographs of the demonstrators gunned down by troops in the 1988 uprising led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is under house arrest in Rangoon.

Another wall is covered with snapshots of more than 150 of the 1,151 men and women the group says are known to be in prison for political activities. Human Rights Watch also estimates more than 1,100 are in detention, though Mr. Glenn said the number is higher.

Also on display are items that help prisoners get by — chess pieces carved from soap bars; sharpened bamboo used to scratch English vocabulary onto strips of plastic; newspaper clippings, often years old, disguised as cigarette papers.

Aye Aye Moe, 31, came to Thailand after two years’ incarceration for “contact with illegal opposition groups.” She said she spent eight months alone in a cell so airless that she had to lie on her stomach to breathe through a slit at the base of a wall.

“I suffered and I fear the new generation will also face the same suffering,” said the former economics student.

Myo Myint is a strikingly handsome man despite having lost a leg, an arm and an eye as a loyal soldier in the Burmese government’s long war with ethnic insurgents. He said that like many other ex-soldiers, he was driven by the ethnic strife and the military’s atrocities to become a passionate supporter of Mrs. Suu Kyi and a member of her National League for Democracy.

During 4½ years alone in a cell (“except for some butterflies and ants”) he meditated, learned English from a teacher in an adjacent cell and wrote poems on the wall with shards of brick.

He recalls one he titled “Returning Home” — “In the house of locks, dawn will never come. … We have been robbed of our tomorrows.”

Associated Press correspondent Denis Gray recently completed a 550-mile trip to interview refugees along the Thai-Burmese border and in rebel-held territory inside Burma.

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