The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Dying Behind Bars
By HPYO WAI THA / THE IRRAWADDY Thursday, February 9, 2012

RANGOON — He was gravely ill, wobbling on swollen feet as he passed through the gate of Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison with the help of three people. He hardly recognized his sister—the  only living member of his immediate family—but his face was lit up with a smile when, on Jan. 13, Burma's nominally civilian government released him after 10 years behind bars as part of its latest amnesty for political prisoners.

Nine days later, however, Ko Thet Nwe was dead.

“My brother was very fit, both physically and mentally, when he was arrested. His health was frail because he was tortured in prison. He was also denied proper medical treatment. By the time he was released, it was too late to save him,” said his sister, Daw Marlar Nwe, 56, explaining the sudden death of Thet Nwe, who was also known as Nyein Lu.

“I make a sincere plea to the government of U Thein Sein: Please end the kind of torture that the Military Intelligence Service inflicted on my brother in interrogation centers and prisons,” she added tearfully, speaking from her home in Shwe Pyi Tha, a few hours drive from downtown Rangoon.

In a 2009 report, the Thailand-based Association for Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP) said that at least 139 political prisoners have died in detention since 1998 as a direct result of severe torture, denial of medical treatment and inadequate medical care.

Despite recent improvements in political prisoners' rights, Thet Nwe's death and a series of interviews with recently released political dissidents have revealed the harsh conditions that inmates continue to endure, including mistreatment in interrogation centers and inadequate health care.

Thet Nwe was an underground activist for the Burmese pro-democracy movement, spending most of his time in Thai-Burmese border towns, where he supposedly received some military training, according to a colleague.

In the 1990s, the high-school dropout disappeared from home, leaving his family wondering if he was alive or dead. It was not until November 2002 that he surprised his sister by suddenly appearing for a short visit.

One of his close friends said the native of Rangoon's Insein Township had returned to recruit young activists for political training outside the country. “Shortly before his return to the border, a police informer in Shwe Pyi Tha tipped off the Military Intelligence Service,” the friend said.

Thet Nwe was arrested in December during a midnight raid on his sister's home and charged with unlawful association with armed groups outside the country. His sister was also detained for letting him stay at her residence.

Both were taken to the Military Intelligence Unit 26 (known as MI 26) interrogation center, a waterfront cantonment in northern Rangoon, a few minutes drive from Kaba Aye Pagoda.

“They handcuffed my baby brother behind his back and put very roughly made wooden shackles on him in my presence. They also pushed his face into human excrement to force him to talk,” recalled  Marlar Nwe as people bustled around her two-story home preparing food offerings for monks who would come the next day to mark the end of the seven-day mourning period for her brother.

She shed a tear as she recounted how all of her brother's teeth were extracted during the interrogation sessions. “They used every possible means of torture. They gave him electric shocks when they were not pleased with his answers. My brother was very….” She choked up.

Arkar Boh of Generation Wave has vivid memories of how he was mistreated while under interrogation following his arrest in 2008. “They slapped me in the face. They forced me to kneel on an uneven surface littered with small pebbles for a long time and kicked me from behind,” said the 29-year-old political activist.

In Burma, severe physical and mental abuses during interrogations were primarily committed by the former Military Intelligence Service under the control of the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence. Interrogations were conducted by the Bureau of Special Investigations and the Burmese Police Force's Special Information Force, better known as the “Special Branch,” according to AAPP.

Thet Nwe was given a 38-year sentence for his alleged crimes. His sister was given 25 years for aiding and abetting, but was released unconditionally in 2005.

Over his ten year captivity, Thet Nwe developed tuberculosis, nervous system ailments, mental disorders and the liver cancer that took his life. During his detention, he was admitted to the Rangoon General Hospital for his frequent blackouts and also received treatment at a psychiatric hospital on two occasions, according to his sister.

Because of his declining health and acts of defiance towards the prison authorities, he was confined to a cell in a special ward of the Insein Prison hospital until his release. The ward was used for inmates suffering from everything from mental illness to communicable diseases such as leprosy, according to a friend who used to spend some time with Thet Nwe in the prison. 

Burmese prisons rarely send inmates, especially political prisoners, to outside hospitals because prison authorities think it would damage their prison's image. Only when the prison doctor is completely unable to provide treatment because of a lack of medical equipment inside the prison will the authorities reluctantly send an inmate to a proper hospital, according to Han Win Aung, a former political prisoner who spent three months in a prison hospital receiving treatment for tuberculosis.

“If an inmate was allowed to see a doctor outside, it was taken for granted that he was going to die, because it was already too late for him to be cured,” he added.

Burmese prisons are infamous for their poor health care systems. Insein Prison, one of the biggest in the country with thousands of inmates, has only one understaffed 50-bed hospital.

“If there's an emergency case, doctors never arrive in time. They always take at least an hour,” said a former political prisoner in his thirties who was discharged from Insein Prison in January.

“There are only three or four doctors for the whole prison, so they ask some prisoners to act as their assistants, without ever giving them proper training,” said Han Win Aung, who recalled being scared to death when an HIV-positive inmate was preparing to give him an injection for his tuberculosis.

“I asked another prisoner to do it for me,” he said. “I received 92 TB shots over three months, but never from the doctor's assistant with HIV.”

Sometimes the number of patients in the 50-bed hospital rose to 10 times its capacity, said one 35-year-old former political prisoner.

“Everything was in a chaos. Patients were lying on the concrete floor. Doctors were nowhere to be seen. I saw 12 people die in a single week,” he said.

Some other prisons in the country have no hospital at all, so inmates have to rely on “clinics” stocked with little more than over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol and mild sedatives like “Burmeton” (Chlorphenamine).

“Some of the tablets were so old that they were covered with mold,” said Arkar Boh, who was released from Kyaukphyu Prison in Arakan State last October.

“I used to stay in a cramped cell together with inmates infected with TB and HIV,” said Ye Thu Ko, 27, who was released from Pegu Prison a few months ago, explaining why he was standing in the reception area of Thukha Charity Clinic in northern Rangoon holding a chest x-ray.

“The doctor has just told me that I have hepatitis C. I've heard there's no cure for it. I have to say it's a gift from Insein,” said Saw Maung, 31, a former political prisoner released from Insein Prison on Jan. 13.

According to Dr Ohn Myint, a physician who has been treating ex-political prisoners at the clinic for the past three years, liver dysfunction is one of the most common ailments afflicting former inmates of Burma's prison system.

“Most of the people coming here also have tuberculosis. Others have infectious diseases like scabies,” he said. “Medical care in prisons is so poor that it's no wonder people come out with those diseases.”

Spending years behind bars can also take a toll on prisoners' mental health.

“Now I hate padlocks,” said Ye Khaung, 34, of Generation Wave, who was detained for three years in Thayat Prison, 545 kilometers north of Rangoon. “When I wake up, I have to force myself to open my eyes, because I'm always afraid that when I open them, I will find myself back in prison. I can never shake this subconscious feeling of insecurity.”

“I'm frightened whenever I hear a door slam, because it's a sound I heard every time they locked us up in our cells,” said Ye Thu Ko.

In Burma, a jailer has absolute power over every aspect of a prison life.

“The warden is like a god in prison. You can't do anything without his approval,” said Arkar Boh, who recalled seeing how a good-natured prison doctor's efforts to help sick prisoners were frustrated by an uncooperative prison warden.

But perhaps there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.

“All I can say is that I'm trying to upgrade the prisoners' welfare and health care system. While the government is on the road to reform, I feel obliged to do what I can within my capacity,” said the warden of a prison in western Burma, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue of prison reforms.

Had Thet Nwe been detained in prison where the welfare of inmates mattered, his fate might have been very different. By last December, the condition of his liver had deteriorated so much that he was sent to Insein General Hospital two times but brought back to his cell without any improvement.

On Jan. 22, nine days after his release, he was on his deathbed. He gestured to his sister, who he affectionately called “Ma Mee,” to give him a hug. He tried to say something to her, but his words were inaudible, and then he became silent for a while.

His legs became cold.

At 12:25 pm, Ko Thet Nwe, 54, died in his big sister's arms, and was free again. But this time—forever.

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