Yangon, Myanmar – In 2013, after spending more than eight years in jail for owning an independent newspaper during the military government’s decades-long rule in Myanmar, Sonny Swe was granted his freedom in a prisoner amnesty.
Once out, he was greeted by an emotional crowd of friends and family, many of whom had campaigned for his release for years.
But as the euphoria faded, the reality of being a former convict kicked in.
“For two years after my release, it was like an adrenaline rush,” Sonny Swe said. “I had the feeling I could restore everything I’d lost in a few months.
“But then all of a sudden, it was like I dropped dead.”
Sonny Swe is one of the thousands of former political prisoners who, after years behind bars, are facing the challenge of reintegrating into society with no form of restitution, recognition or support from Myanmar’s civilian-elected government.
Many of them spent years in jail for questionable reasons – from participating in a protest to distributing pro-democracy literature.
Hundreds of political prisoners were freed as Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – began its transition from decades-long military rule to democracy in 2011.
And after the National League for Democracy (NLD) – led by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a former political prisoner – took power after elections in 2015, scores more were released.
But once they were freed, the former prisoners found they had little support and many struggled to return to normal life.
“We knew from our own experiences that there would be many struggles for former political prisoners after their release,” said Ko Bo Gyi, a cofounder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an organisation launched in 2000 by former political prisoners.
Most of the political prisoners lost their jobs when they were arrested, but after their release found employers did not want to hire people with a “criminal” record.
Bo Kyi said that while more international groups and civil society organisations were beginning to hire political prisoners, the years spent behind bars mean they generally have far fewer skills.
“Many former political prisoners that were [incarcerated] for a long period of time do not have higher education, cannot speak other languages, and don’t know how to use computers,” Bo Gyi said. “Thus they have a harder time of getting good jobs that support them or their families.”
Other jobs – such as being a doctor or lawyer- still remain out of reach because they require licensing that is not available to people with a criminal record.
Prisoners also suffer from poor health after spending time in overcrowded jails that lack proper nutrition, sanitation and ventilation, as well as from the effects of physical wounds left from torture – which was widespread and systematic in Myanmar’s prisons under the military.
Years away from family also has an effect.
“Shortly after I was released from prison I began to realise that my family life wasn’t the same any more,” said Sonny Swe, whose only son was not yet a teenager when he was jailed. “Now my marriage is over, and my son is so used to life without his father … I’m still getting used to the social adjustments I’ve had to make.”
And he’s not alone.
“[Former political prisoners] surveyed reported experiences of social exclusion from family, friends, neighbours and ostracism by the wider community due to the pervasive culture of fear in Burma,” said a report released by AAPP in 2016.
Then there are the hidden effects of imprisonment.
“Dealing with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been one of the hardest parts,” said Sonny Swe, who spent two years in solitary confinement. “My depression comes every six months. I can no longer see blood or go to funerals or be around things that make me sad. It’s a regular struggle.”
And for former political prisoners such as activists or journalists, who return to their former roles, there is also the risk of rearrest.
Political prisoners who are granted amnesty and released before their sentence ends are usually freed conditionally under Article 401 of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure. The law states that if the authorities deem the ex-political prisoner has violated the terms of their release they will be rearrested “without warrant and remanded to complete the unexpired portion of the sentence”.
Maung Saungkha, an activist and former political prisoner, says he knows that he and the activities of Athan, a free-expression organisation he helped found, are being monitored by the government.
“They have been watching me for a while,” said Maung Saungkha. “They – and I – know that they can arrest me again at any time.”
Indeed, hopes that Myanmar would become a country with no political prisoners have quickly dwindled, as more people have been jailed including Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters news agency reporters who were released two weeks ago after spending more than 500 days in jail over an award-winning report on a massacre of Rohingya men and boys.
According to the AAPP, there are some 120 former political prisoners from the NLD who are members of parliament. Still, the lack of government recognition and support means that it has been left to mainly small organisations like the AAPP to provide support and services for former political prisoners.
Through a series of programmes, round-table discussions, and one-on-one talks, the AAPP works to ensure that former political prisoners have access to education, vocational training, mental health counselling and healthcare.
“We also work with the prison department to send money to current political prisoners so that they can buy themselves goods and medicine,” Bo Gyi said. “And, at times, we provide scholarships for their families so that their children can continue their education.”
Local organisation Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS), started in 2012 by NLD cofounder and former political prisoner U Win Tin, works to assist former political prisoners who suffer from physical wounds resulting from their incarcerations by helping them with their search for medical treatment.
Both the AAPP and FPPS also provide mental health services and counselling for former political prisoners and their families in a country where social stigma over mental health runs deep.
“Especially for former political prisoners, after their release, they suffer from trauma and depression,” said Kyaw Soe Win, who leads the AAPP’s mental health assistance programme.
“It can take time for them and their families to be willing to have therapy together. But we are here and provide services for them when they are ready.”
And while the AAPP works to provide immediate and long-term assistance to former and current political prisoners, they also have also taken on an advocacy role, focussing on prison reforms, prisoner’s rights, the repeal of laws commonly used against political prisoners, and the fight for formal recognition of political prisoners in Myanmar.
“Despite there being over 120 former political prisoners in government, we have not seen any efforts from the government to address the political prisoner situation,” Bo Gyi said.
“The government always says, ‘Forget the past’. But how can we forget the past when we are forced to live in it?”