Activists put Burma's grim jails on display

A simple museum tucked away on the Thai-Burmese border re-creates the infamous prisons.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Iron shackles lie heaped in the corner. A cement-gray jumpsuit, block letters emblazoned across the front, hangs from the wall. Wooden chess pieces, carved by Burmese prisoners, sit nearby.

But this 10-by-10-square-foot room isn't actually a prison cell – the notorious prisons in Burma (Myanmar) are, of course, off limits to visitors. Instead, former political prisoners now hiding in Thailand have built a "prison museum" to expose the conditions inside the detention centers.

The replica on the Thai-Burmese border re-creates prison conditions, which curators hope will expose visitors to the plight of political prisoners.

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"We have to preserve the memory of the victims of the military regime," says staff member and former prisoner Aung Kyaw Do. 

The museum – created by a group of former political prisoners called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB) when it formed in 2000 – helps raise international awareness of the situation in Burma, even though it may not alter politics "on a grand scale," says Nancy Wu, an aid worker with Burma Issues, a nongovernmental organization based in Mae Sot.

Burma's treatment of political prisoners has drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups for years. There's little sign that prison conditions are improving. At least 2,092 political prisoners are being held in detention centers across the country, according to AAPPB.

Last September's "saffron revolution" – when monks led an uprising against the regime and the government cracked down – triggered a fresh wave of arrests and lengthy prison sentences. Authorities arrested over 5,000 people, including 2,000 monks. Though many were eventually released, close to 200 monks and hundreds of other activists are still being detained.

In August the United Nations special human rights envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, visited prominent political prisoners in Insein prison, a complex outside Rangoon that many Burmese consider the country's harshest facility. They included Kyaw Kyaw, who is serving 20 years for helping organize a workers' rights seminar during last year's protests, and U Gambira, head of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance, which was a leading force in the protests.

At the museum , photos of prisoners who died while incarcerated are plastered on the walls, alongside drawings and letters written by inmates. A large map depicts the locations of the 43 prisons in Burma, including four facilities built in recent years. The centerpiece is an intricate scale-model of the infamous Insein prison.

A section titled "Lives Behind Bars" details the inmates' daily routine: They sew, carve trinkets for sale outside the prison walls, or occasionally do hard labor. Meals usually consist of watery soup made from fish paste or, when prisoners run afoul of authorities, nothing. Usually each hall has a pair of buckets that serve as the bathroom for up to a dozen inmates.

"We want the world to know that human rights abuses are taking place daily in Burmese prisons," says Mr. Kyaw Do. Like most of the other staff members, he spent many years incarcerated, including at Insein. 

Kyaw Do took part in the democracy protests that rocked Burma in 1988 and forced the military leadership to schedule elections in 1991. When it refused to recognize the election results, he and thousands of political activists were rounded up after expressing discontent.

"I was sentenced to 20 years, even though I didn't even have a defense lawyer," he says. 

In prison, Kyaw Do says he and other inmates had to follow strict rules and faced torture regularly. "We were in the cell 23 hours and 40 minutes a day, often in solitary confinement," he says. "At times they put a hood on me, beat me, and shackled me. Other times I was locked in the sun room," a metal room on the prison roof that heats up with sunlight.

Kyaw Do was released in 2004. Yet as a former political activist, he considered himself a marked man, and during last September's uprising he fled to avoid rearrest. He says he escaped illegally to Thailand and joined the AAPPB.

Legal entry for Burmese into Thailand is extremely difficult, especially for political activists, since the government here doesn't want to provide a launching pad for their work and stoke problems with its neighbor. Most AAPPB members are here illegally. Their museum is also kept secret from Thai authorities, and is open mostly to nongovernmental organizations and by appointment only.

In addition to museum visits, Kyaw Do and his colleagues maintain contacts with current prisoners inside Burma. Wardens keep political prisoners separate from common criminals, he says, and they tightly control what inmates say, see, and hear. "We were not even allowed to say the word 'democracy,' " he recalls. To help prisoners stay connected to the outside world, AAPPB activists keep in regular contact with inmates' families, who then pass along news.

Members say that they provide emergency help to some prisoners by arranging for families to deliver medicine and other provisions into the detention facilities.

"The military intelligence regularly withholds medical treatment as a form of psychological torture," says former prisoner Ko Bo Kyi. 

AAPPB members say they hope to pass along information about the conditions of the prisoners to the new UN envoy, Mr. Quintana, and to the rest of the world. "The regime doesn't want the world to know what it does to its people," Kyaw Do says. "It's our job to make sure the world knows."

• On Monday, Part 3: Burmese monks have begun teaching people how to question the government.

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