The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Nine Years Sleeping on a Cold Concrete Floor
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Recently-released leader of the 1988 Generation Students group Ko Ko Gyi addresses media representatives during a press conference in Rangoon on January 21, 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)
A number of Burma's political prisoners who were recently released told The Irrawaddy that conditions inside the prisons were deplorable until 1999 when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) became involved. Many, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the physical environment and said that conditions varied in prisons across the country.

The Irrawaddy reporter Lin Thant spoke to Ko Ko Gyi, the well-known 88 Generation Students Group leader about conditions and his personal experiences inside Mong Hsat Prison, which is situated in a remote location in eastern Shan State.

Ko Ko Gyi was arrested together with his colleagues in 2007 after his involvement in peaceful protests. For his role in the demonstrations, he was handed a 65 and a half year prison sentence.

Having spent nearly 20 years inside, and having done time in Insein, Maubin, Keng Tong and Mong Hsat prisons, Ko Ko Gyi is well qualified to talk about Burma's prison system.

He was released on Jan. 13 under a presidential amnesty.

Question: Based on your personal experience, please tell us the conditions in the different prisons you were detained.

Answer: The prison conditions were quite bad when we were imprisoned for the first time. What I mean is that we were beaten and maltreated and regularly sent to the guard dogs' cells. We were not allowed to read and anyone caught with a piece of paper was given a severe punishment.

However, after the ICRC’s visits to prisons, conditions began to change gradually. For instance, I had to sleep on a cold concrete floor for about nine years until the Red Cross came to inspect the jail. After their visit I was allocated a bed. Also, toilets that had manual flushing were installed, and we were permitted to read books, newspapers and journals.

Q: Were there any situations that did not improve?

A: A political prisoner could previously receive a remission on his or her sentence like other inmates. However, after the changes took place in 1997, he no longer qualified for a remission of his sentence. It was a very bad practice. In prison, we can generally calculate that we have the right to get a pardon on one-third of our sentence in accordance with the jail manual. It means that if a political prisoner was given a 15-year term he should be released after serving 10 years. The issue caused a rift between the political prisoners and the prison authorities. On one hand, the government said there are no prisoners in Burma, but on the other hand our rights were systematically abused. That was the worst thing.   

Another issue was that during our second time of imprisonment we were sent to remote prisons, intentionally creating a situation where our families could not contact or visit us regularly. A fortnightly prison visit creates an outlet for frustration for a political prisoner. By having an opportunity to meet and talk with family members a political prisoner can release his/her stress that has been bottled up for the past 14 days.

For example, I was in Mong Hsat prison for over three years, during which time my family visited me only three times. And I would say that I was a bit luckier than many others. There were those whose families could not even afford to come and see them even one time.

So, whether intentional or not, transferring political prisoners to remote prisons was a mental torture for them. While physical conditions in different prisons were improving, psychological torture continued.

Q: How about health care in prison?

A: Even an ordinary citizen has to pay everything for health care under the motto za-yeik-hmya-pay-kyan-mar-yay [Share expenses for health]. But it is worse for a prisoner. Especially in small towns in remote areas, local residents don’t receive adequate health care. For instance, there is neither an X-ray machine nor an eye-doctor nor a dentist. Therefore, inevitably, there was no prison doctor on hand.

We tried to be prepared and keep medicines for fever and other routine diseases that often affected us during seasonal changes, but we found it very difficult to get treatment for serious problems.   

Q: What do you want to say to the government about health care for every political prisoner?

A: First of all, political prisoners shouldn’t have been given those sentences because of their involvement in political activism. While under incarceration they had to live under poor conditions without proper medical treatment, and their families lost the right to take care of their loved ones. This is not something that should happen. The government should be responsible and take effective care of every prisoner's health. 

Q: What do you think is needed to improve the overall condition of prisons, including health care, administration and relations?

A: There is not an equal status in the administration of every prison. It depends on the local authorities, the police information unit dealing with each respective prison, etc.

There is no law firmly enacted in Burma with regard to political prisoners. The country really needs a law that recognizes them and their rights, and also states responsibilities of authorities.

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