Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Punishment for a dream – the price of Burmese conscience

by Nay Tin Myint

Mizzima News - William Harvard wrote: "The greatest glory of a free-born people is to transmit that freedom to their children." This is the dream that I had for Burma in 1988, and I still have the same dream today. As a university student in 1988, I never imagined that I would spend the next fifteen years of my life in Burma’s notorious prisons for daring to hope for a better future.

It all began on a beautiful spring day, March 13, 1988, when I was a 21-year-old Rangoon University Zoology student in my senior year. Some Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) soldiers shot and killed an engineering student at the campus. Adding insult to injury, afterward the army denied any wrongdoing and ignored the students’ request for an investigation, eventually leading the students to strike.

During the ensuing crackdown, armed government soldiers savagely attacked unarmed student demonstrators, stole their possessions and gang-raped hooded female students in custody. According to eyewitnesses, armed soldiers also threw students into Inya Lake and ponds, watching many students drown. Since that day the "White Bridge" of Rangoon Arts and Science University, where soldiers attacked the unarmed innocent university students, was famously renamed the "Red Bridge" for the blood spilt during those tragic times.

By August 8, 1988, the momentum of the students' strike in the spring mushroomed into a nationwide uprising, with Burmese fed up with the government's negligence rising up against the abusive military junta. During these demonstrations, as one of the founders of the Tri-color Youth Organization, I gave a speech condemning the BSPP ruling party's mismanagement of the country. I demanded justice for the army's brutality and for the government to tell us what happened to the Rangoon University students who disappeared in March. The ruling junta immediately arrested me.

Right after the arrest, government agents began to torture me with the aim of breaking my silence. They forced me to kneel down and crawl over sharp stones with hands cuffed behind my back. Then they hung me from my handcuffs with my legs barely touching the ground while I continued to bleed all night. The tormentors placed a tin bucket on my head and beat it until blood ran down my ears. They offered me no food until the third day, when they brought foul and inedible food accompanied by a scant amount of water. They continued to beat me and torture me with electric shock to force me to disclose the names of my associates. I refused to give up their names, either to stop the torture or to gain my release. I was prepared to die alone under torture rather than to subject other innocent political activists to the same brutal punishments.

The courts in Burma were as lawless and fraudulent as other institutions under military rule. An army colonel, the head of a martial court, asked, "Do you think what you are doing is right?" I answered, "Yes, what I am doing is right and I have a lot of support from the people." I continued to point out the failures of the ruling party and promised that one day they would be defeated. He apparently already had orders to sentence me to three years of hard labor in prison, but after my reply, furious, he increased it to four years. He then asked whether I would like to comment on anything else. I replied, "Yes," but they refused to let me speak and dragged me away.

Similar to other leading political prisoners, they kept me alone in an eight by twelve foot cell in notorious Insein Prison near Rangoon. Although according to the official prison handbook prisoners have the right to take a walk twice a day and to have fifteen bowls of water for bathing, prison authorities locked me in my cell in clear violation of those rights. No prison in Burma followed the guidelines written in the prison manual. When, at the close of 1989, I demanded my rights according to the prison manual, they transferred me to another notorious prison, Tharawaddy, in Pegu.

In Tharawaddy, prison officials made me work in the plantation area. When they assigned me to collect toilet bowls, a job for criminal inmates, I refused, since I was not a criminal. Although I knew that my prison term would be reduced if I obeyed their rules I refused to be humiliated or degraded. Instead, I firmly held on to my convictions and did not surrender my political conscience for personal comfort or freedom.

Next, in an attempt to break my spirit further, they shackled my ankles and placed a metal bar between my legs. They continued to beat and kick me, even while I was shackled. During an episode of solitary confinement my toilet bowl was not collected for a month, and insects began crawling out of it and climbing onto me while I slept with no mattress or blanket on a concrete floor. I was not allowed to own clothing other than what I wore. After one month, my skin became infected and I suffered from stomach pain, but the prison warden refused treatment or for my family to bring any medication. When I tried to report this violation they transferred me to yet another prison, Myingyan, in central Burma in early 1991.

While at Myingyan prison they again immediately placed me in solitary confinement. They supplied only a small amount of food and allowed a bath once every three weeks. I could not wash clothes because there was not enough water. Therefore, I stood on my clothes while bathing and squeezed the water out to wash again. As a punishment for cleverly bathing and washing clothes at the same time, they added a second metal bar to my shackle. They also forced me to crawl over sharp stones with the shackle on, while two prison guards savagely struck me. The shackle stayed on for more than one year, and when it finally came off I was suffering from partial paralysis. I was not able to walk because my shackled legs had been held in an awkward position for so long and from the weakness caused by a general lack of nutrition.

Eventually I saw a prison doctor, but I still received no treatment for my paralysis. Finally, after a long interval, my family was allowed to visit and was permitted to supply medication. Although I was paralyzed I kept exercising my legs and I continued to discipline my mind. I needed to live, not to die in prison. I was determined not to let the military junta triumph over me. To keep my mind focused and sharp, I continued to meditate according to Burmese Buddhism.

In 1992, at the end of my four-year prison term, I was released only because of my physical disability. I spent the next six months in a hospital for medical treatment and physical rehabilitation. During this time I was invited to a meeting between National League for Democracy leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Win Tin and the United Nations special representative to Burma. I agreed to have my name submitted to the United Nations for the purpose of this meeting. Soon after, the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) regime announced that a National Convention would be held to draw up a new constitution for Burma.

Since the ploy to draw up a new constitution came only after the army lost the 1990 general election, it was clear the generals were just buying time instead of genuinely preparing for a transfer of power. A constitutional convention dominated by handpicked delegates from the military and close associates of the army clearly was not intended to be free or fair. Not surprisingly, the junta intensified the crackdown on political dissidents and elected politicians, even while pushing for the National Convention on the pretext of writing a new constitution.

As democracy activists including myself began organizing with university students for a nationwide movement against the unlawful National Convention, SLORC henchmen came and raided my home, confiscated my personal possessions and arrested me for the second time on charges of distributing protest pamphlets and meeting with United Nations representatives. At my trial in October 1993, the judge told me, "You have been a leader during the 1988 unrest, and now you are protesting against the National Convention with the intention of demeaning the dignity of the country." Along with a false accusation of my conspiring with armed rebels, he sentenced me to twenty years in prison with hard labor.

After holding me in Insein Prison for a few months they again transferred me to Myingyan. Gradually it became clear to me that by sending political prisoners like me to Myingyan again and again, the ruling junta intended not only to torture and break our political will but also planned to systematically kill and eliminate all political opposition without leaving any trace of evidence behind. This plan was instituted with the same efficiency as the plan for ethnic cleansing in remote jungle villages hidden from the view of the international community.

With this understanding, I approached the Myingyan Prison entrance with great apprehension. Upon arrival, I was blindfolded and severely beaten with my hands cuffed behind my back. The beating continued even after I fell to the ground. They shackled my legs and ordered me put in solitary confinement for another seven years.

It all began again with no bath for three months, a small amount of stale food and insufficient drinking water. To make life even more miserable the guards inside continually harassed political prisoners. To prevent contact between political prisoners when one of us was in the aisle, all other political prisoners were forced to sit in an extremely awkward position called "ponzan" at the back of their cells. On one occasion a prison guard savagely knocked me down in the shower after accusing me of making eye contact with other political prisoners, forcing me to crawl back to my cell.

Routine and cold-blooded assaults on political prisoners were meant as part of the punishment. For instance, frequently after I had finished cleaning the floor of my cell with my only sarong, a prison guard would blow the dust back in, subsequently striking me for not properly cleaning my cell. Subsisting all the while on a meager diet of foul rations contaminated with stones and un-hulled paddy grains added misery to our anguished years inside the prison and, consequently, political prisoners in Burma often succumbed to deteriorating health behind bars. When family members brought even a small amount of salt to alleviate the misery, prison authorities often punished the prisoners with more beatings.

According to the official prison manual, family visitations were allowed for up to 15 minutes. However, political prisoners were allowed only three minutes with family members who had often traveled long distances. The ruling junta also created an atmosphere in which family members and friends were forced to put pressure on prisoners to give up politics altogether. The junta frequently imposed penalties on innocent family members in an attempt to break down the political prisoners’ final defenses – forcing them to watch family members suffer by being forced to travel to remote prisons for visitations that tested strength beyond the endurance of even the most dedicated democrats.

I was not allowed to read any book from 1994 to 2000. When the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came to visit in 2000, restrictions were slightly eased, with authorities allowing us more food and longer showers. After the ICRC chief representative came to meet me in prison and recorded my prison experiences, I was further allowed a few books for reading. I was also able to see a prison doctor and was allowed to do some physical exercise.

In 2001, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC's General Khin Nyunt reached an agreement to work together. During that time, military intelligence (MI) frequently paid me visits and asked myself and other political prisoners to sign a pledge to never again engage in any political activity, in exchange for our release. Those of us who refused remained locked up in prison.

In early 2005, I was sent to Mandalay prison in upper Burma, where they immediately put me in solitary confinement for another six months. When authorities transferred me back to Myingyan for another stint in violation of my rights, I decided to go on hunger strike. On the sixth day of my hunger strike I was offered some water but the guards subsequently broke the water pot. After four more days without water I became unconscious. The Director General of the Penitentiary Department from Rangoon heard about me, immediately paying me a visit. I was brought to the hospital where I vomited blood and passed out. I was sustained only by the belief that my tormenters "can control me physically, but they cannot control my mind. My mind does not belong to them. My mind belongs to me."

I was eventually released on July 6, 2005, after over 15 years of imprisonment and nearly seven years in solitary confinement. "RELEASED" was just a statement on paper. Inside Burma I was never really free, since government agents continued to follow and watch my every move. Nevertheless, my mind was still occupied with 1988 and democratic aspirations for our people.

The generals in Burma wanted the Burmese people and the world to see that the army had the power to take away our lives, our liberty and our happiness at any time they chose. They wanted everyone to see the scars, the pain and the deaths of those who dared resist their brutal domination.

But even after 15 years in their infernal prisons, the SPDC was not able to make me obey their authority. My vow to continue struggling for democracy remained unbroken and I never wavered from my commitment toward freedom for Burma.

Countless people in Burma have sacrificed their lives and all that they held dear in the name of freedom for their children. The generals in Naypyitaw must see that our leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi and others who are still in prison will never give up their dream for democracy or exchange their political conscience for a life of luxury under the military regime.

Our real leaders know that there would not be an India without Gandhi, a South Africa without Nelson Mandela and an Obama without Martin Luther King, Jr. They also believe that Burma will overcome its troubles one day. Only for now, they need our help to make their dreams come true.

Nay Tin Myint escaped from Burma to Thailand in 2007. He was granted political asylum in the United States in 2008 and is the Secretary of the National League for Democracy – Liberated Area, USA branch.

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