Insein Prison: Could Mandela survive here?
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
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Insein Prison: Could Mandela survive here?


By The Irrawaddy SEPTEMBER, 1997 - VOLUME 5 NO.6


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Whoever you are, leave it at the prison gate. There are no politicians, doctors, teachers, monks, nuns or students. You are all prisoners. You are all the same.” Those are the greeting words for every new political prisoner in Burma. The jail authorities subscribe to the junta’s official line that there are no political prisoners in the jails. In 1991, I was detained in cell block No.1 of Insein Special Jail (formerly called the Attached Jail). Although it is a special jail, the only special privilege provided was “special solitary confinement”. The chief prison doctor was Dr. Soe Kyi, and his assistants were Dr. Tun Tun and Dr. Aung Than Myint. During those days, Dr. Soe Kyi was the most powerful man in the prison because of his relationship with former Home Minister Lt-Gen Phone Myint. Almost every Wednesday, the chief warden made his rounds and checks to see if the prisoners in I.S.J. had any complaints or requests. All officials in the prison, including prison medical officers, had to accompany him on his rounds. It was the only time we had a right to see a prison doctor. Apart from Wednesdays, we could only see a “medical worker” between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. At I.S.J., our “medical worker” was Corporal Khin Maung Nwe who had little clinical knowledge or experience. If one wanted to see him, first one needed to inform the head of the cell-block. However, to see a doctor on Wednesday, a patient was humbly made to stand head down and with hands crossed over the groin area in his cell. Passing officials would peer into the cells, asking the sick what they had to say. The doctor never gave actual examinations, but only asked us what was wrong. Then the doctor would tell Khin Maung Nwe what type of pills to give the patient. But we were never told what type of medicine was prescribed to us. Our blood pressure and heartbeat were never tested and we never saw a doctor with a stethoscope. Regardless of the affliction, all patients were treated with the same medicines, usually a weak pain-killer like Burspro or an antacid called Antacin. All the prisoners began calling Khin Maung Nwe “Mr. Burspro!” It’s strange — isn’t it? We were given the same treatment even though we suffered from different ailments. Not surprisingly, U Tin Maung Win (NLD-MP) and U Sein Win died in Insein prison in January 1991. U Tin Maung Win was suffering amoebic dysentery but he never received any proper medication. Only when he fell unconscious did the jail authorities finally send him to the prison hospital. He died shortly after. The authorities claimed he had died of leukemia. After hearing of U Tin Maung Win’s premature death, we requested that Dr. Soe Kyi provide proper medicine for us. He replied, “You’re lucky that we are even kind enough to prescribe Burspro and Sodomite. If M.I.S (Military Intelligence Service) knew about that, we [doctors and medics] would be fired. We were told not to give any treatment to those who are awaiting trial or currently being tried.” Occasionally, when we were very fortunate, we were given Tetracycline, Ampi-cillin and Paracetamol. Although prisoners are not doctors we are familiar with antibiotics. One cycle of antibiotics is 16 capsules for 4 days but we never received enough capsules. At most, we received 4 capsules. If we complained, the doctors and medics would say, “Why do you think you’re special? There are many other patients here. If you received 16 capsules, how can we provide for the others?” Finally, we realized that assuming the humiliating official posture in our cells to request treatment was not worth it–we never received treatment except for Buspro and Sodomite. In February 1991, a Rangoon Institute of Technology [R.I.T] student suffering from a bad toothache, met Dr. Soe Kyi. The doctor asked him, “Where does it hurt?” The student replied, “My lower left jaw.” Dr. Soe Kyi smiled and said, “Okay, use your right side [to eat food].” The student became angry and screamed, “You are not a doctor!” “No. I’m not a dentist,” Dr. Soe Kyi said coyly and went away. Until the beginning of 1995 there was no dentist in the prison hospital. In late February 1991, Toe Toe Tun from the Democratic Party for a New Society, suffered from dysentery and asked Dr. Soe Kyi to authorize special meals of porridge and boiled water for the inmate. Not unexpectedly, Dr. Soe Kyi said, “It is impossible to provide boiled water. We don’t even have boiled water to clean the needles at our hospital.” In March 1991, Moe Zaw Oo (NLD- Youth) developed a large boil on his hip. Khin Maung Nwe said a doctor wouldn’t give him any treatment, even if he were allowed to see one. Khin Maung Nwe offered to remove the boil himself.


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