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.

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