Nine Years Sleeping on a Cold Concrete Floor
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Nine Years Sleeping on a Cold Concrete Floor

By THE IRRAWADDY 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.

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K.M. Aung Wrote:
I would like President Thein Sein and members of the Parliament to spend a week of solitary confinement in prisons all over Burma, then report back to the citizens of Burma on how they enjoy their brief stay at these prisons. My heart breaks to read about the cruel treatment of political prisoners who have had to endure very long and unjustifiable sentences in harsh conditions. The prison system in Burma must be cleaned up, from top to bottom. Better yet, those who work for the prison department should be chained to these guard dog cells for a year and see if they like it.

Sai Lin Wrote:
I know about Burmese prison very well.
My worst experienced was toilet. I can sleep on Bamboo mat but sleeping with these smells is nightmare and inviting all kind of diseases. The Burmese prison is the place for degrading human race. Forget about torture by authority, the living in the Burmese prison can shorten your life by half.

I wish I want to see Than Shwe spending his life until his last breath in the Insein Prison but not in VIP cell.

Z W Wrote:
Not only inside of jail za-yeik-hmya-pay-kyan-mar-yay [Share expenses for health] but also out side of health care center.

We need to discus and change immediately of share expenses for health program in parliament .Because everything we have to pay in hospital.

I supporting for Ko Ko Gyi sentence. ICRC should have go every weekend to the jail.

Terry Evans Wrote:
All around the world people care about events in Burma. The abuse of political prisoners has severely undermined the Nation's position in the world. Not everyone is fooled by the junta's latest PR scheme- many are still vigilant!

Oo Maung Gyi Wrote:
Ko Ko Gyi is hundred percent right, the prisons condition in Burma is very ( very ) bad as stated y Ko Ko Gyi. Ko Ko Gyi is great spoken from his heart, all have to share his feelings, the authority from now has to make better conditions for all prisons and jails through out Burma. Burma has to go long way to improve all jails in the country, be cause the authority think that by putting jail to politicians they will get relief of their mind which is absolutely wrong in theory. Look at to day's condition in Burma, the government can not effort to keep political prisoners to complete their jail terms. After-all the truth can not cover long, admission is the only right way of our daily life.

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