Ex-Inmates Describe Torture In Burma

A painting in the office of a political prisoner advocacy group depicts mistreatment of inmates in Burmese prisons.
A painting in the office of a political prisoner advocacy group depicts mistreatment of inmates in Burmese prisons. (By Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)

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By Alan Sipress and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

RANGOON, Burma -- Min Ko Naing spent nearly 16 years in solitary confinement. Not even his jailers would make eye contact with him.

Myo Myint was repeatedly stripped, shackled and beaten while spending much of the same period in prison, also for challenging Burma's military rulers. During one interrogation, he recalled, he was kept naked for four days while being bludgeoned with canes. During another, he was lashed for hours to a seesaw, head down, until he blacked out.

Each man had passed more than a third of his life in prison when both were released in 2004. Min Ko Naing, 44, remained in Burma, under scrutiny of the secret police. Myo Myint, 43, fled to a small town just over the border in Thailand.

Their testimony, provided in separate interviews last month, highlights the psychological and physical abuse endured by political prisoners in Burma, which is ruled by a military junta. More than 1,100 people remain in jail for seeking democratic reform, according to Amnesty International.

The two men's accounts reveal how determined they remain to press for social change despite torture inside prison walls and only the remote prospect for a shift in power outside them.

Myo Myint now works with a group advocating prisoner rights. Min Ko Naing is urging the government and its opponents to set aside political differences to ease the country's deepening poverty and treat spreading disease.

It was not possible to independently verify the two men's accounts, but their descriptions of conditions in the prisons were similar to those provided by other former Burmese inmates.

Min Ko Naing organized a national student union in the 1980s to press for democracy. But in August 1988, Burmese security forces smashed the movement, killing thousands of students and workers demanding an end to military rule. In 1989, when he was plucked off the street by men in a red pickup truck, he became one of his country's most famous political prisoners.

Though Min Ko Naing is now at constant risk of being rearrested, he agreed to meet a foreign journalist because, he said, he wanted to emphasize his hope for national reconciliation. "There were so many bitter experiences," he said during the interview behind closed doors in a private room in central Rangoon. "My individual life and experience was bitterness."

But he refuses to dwell on the past. "We've glimpsed the light of the Buddha's teachings," he said, referring to other former student activists. "Forgiveness and loving kindness can conquer the hatred. Our aim for all citizens of our country is to leave our individual sacrifice and individual suffering for the past."

Min Ko Naing's voice is deep but soft, his dark brown eyes sober. When he explains his views, he ticks off the points on slender fingers. When he wants to summon a memory, he presses a thumb to his forehead.

Throughout his time in prison, Min Ko Naing said, he was kept in a cell apart from others, watched by unseen military agents and denied even a book or a pen. "There was no human contact," he recalled, then switching from Burmese to English for emphasis: "Nothing."


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