Myanmar’s military coup leaders have been accused of murdering dozens of political prisoners and in some cases disguising their deaths as escape attempts.
The military removed political prisoners from Kyaiksakaw Prison, in Bago Region’s Daik-U township, on June 27 under the pretence of transferring them, but a total of 37 have since gone missing, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) – a prominent monitoring group that documents civilian deaths, arrests and extrajudicial killings – said in a statement this week.
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The prison authorities repeatedly denied knowing the whereabouts of these prisoners when their families enquired, it added.
Families of two of the “disappeared” detainees later received letters informing them of their deaths. The letters said that a transport vehicle was involved in an accident during the transfer and that the two victims were killed by security forces after they tried to run away.
“Political prisoners removed from Daik-U Prison remain missing without a trace. It is currently unknown whether they are dead or alive. These actions overstep the procedures of prison, along with committing the heinous crime of unjust torture and illegal killings. This is also a blatant violation of the ASEAN Human Rights Convention,” the AAPP said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The accusations are the latest indication of the brutality of the administration established by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing since the military seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in early 2021. The generals have responded violently to opposition to their rule, razing and bombing civilian villages and cracking down on dissidents, protesters, politicians, artists and journalists, even as the armed forces take heavy losses from pro-democracy resistance fighters.
More than 23,800 people have been arrested for their opposition to the coup, and almost 20,000 remain arrested, according to AAPP estimates.
Last year, the generals executed four pro-democracy leaders and activists in the country’s first use of the death penalty in decades, triggering worldwide condemnation. Dozens of political prisoners remain on death row.
Even if the inmates are not physically harmed, all have been refused family visits, leading to longtime isolation. The government has ignored pleas to resume the visits, which were originally suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“Prisoners may not have had family contact for more than three years,” a female former prisoner told Al Jazeera. Her name is being protected for fear of reprisals.
“For a lot of people [behind bars], the survival strategy is meditation.”
Overcrowding in confined spaces
Then-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer visited the capital Naypyidaw and held meetings with Min Aung Hlaing months after the coup, urging the resumption of ICRC prison visits and more humanitarian access to conflict areas. The ICRC paid another visit in June 2022 and repeated their requests, but in vain.
Other serious problems include overcrowding, tensions with the prison guards and a lack of access to water and medical treatment.
“Prison officials often said, ‘We can kill all of you. After that, we would release a statement saying some prisoners died when trying to escape during an accident,'” said Myo Thura, a 23-year-old activist from Yangon.
Myo Thura has been behind bars twice, with the longest spell between March and October 2021 in Insein, a notorious prison situated in the centre of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon that has taken in many more convicts since the coup.
There was a lot of tension between those running the prison and the detainees.
“The staff mistreat the prisoners and fail to recognise our humanity. They force us to work – mostly manual labour in agriculture and even sewage pumping by hand – and constantly threaten to harm or kill us,” Myo Thura told Al Jazeera.
In addition, overcrowding makes the environment stifling, he added.
“Some of the prison ‘rooms’ had 200 or even 300 detainees squeezed together. Insein Prison Meditation Centre, where I was kept for seven months, had almost 900 political prisoners.”
Myo Thura estimates a typical room in the jail measures about 111 square metres (1,200sq feet) and holds nearly 220 people. The biggest is about 186sq metres (2,000sq feet) and has nearly 300 detainees. Some of the rooms do have fans, but that does little to cool the environment.
The former female prisoner told Al Jazeera there was also a serious lack of medical support within the prison system.
“I met a woman in prison who had been due for a mastectomy for breast cancer a couple of days after she was arrested and was unable to have the surgery and was trying to survive with medication,” said the former prisoner.
There are hundreds of Rohingya inside serving sentences of two or three years for immigration offences, she added, and lots of women on 10-year sentences for trafficking, such as those arranging for children from the village to go and work in households or at tea shops.
Three meals a day are brought to the cell blocks in buckets: congee (rice porridge) at 7am; rice and lentil soup about three hours later for lunch, and rice and either chicken, fish, spinach soup or boiled egg – depending on the day of the week – for an early dinner at 3pm. Some manage to supplement their diet with condiments from the weekly shop or a parcel from home.
The military has not provided an official number for either the total number of prisoners or the number of detention facilities in the country.
Myanmar’s generals, who have dominated the country since independence, have a long history of putting their people in some of the world’s worst prisons. But the severity of the persecution since February 2021 dwarfs previous repressions, according to those who have followed successive years of military rule.
‘Terrible incommunicado situations’
The AAPP report, The Flow of Injustice (PDF), released on July 11, warned of a rapidly deteriorating system.
“Targeted because of their active, supportive or associated pro-democracy role, political prisoners suffer human rights violations committed by Sit-Tat [the military], at each stage of the flow of injustice,” the report noted.
It added that political prisoners “experience violence and abuse at the point of arrest, during interrogation, during transfers and within prison”, while the poor living conditions in prisons worsen their struggles.
Ex-prisoners told AAPP that interrogation centres were “a living hell”, with military interrogators using torture as “a matter of policy” to extract information, intimidate, coerce and penalise those resisting military rule.
The report said at least 99 political prisoners were known to have been killed during interrogation since the coup, and warned that the actual figure was probably much higher.
Extrajudicial killings of detainees did not happen to the same extent in the past, said Kyaw Soe Win, a veteran activist with AAPP, not even after the 1988 uprising when supporters and student leaders were shot and jailed.
“Prisons have always been overcrowded in [Myanmar], but now, prison officers are seen by [the military government] authorities as carrying out a good service if they perpetrate human rights abuses,” he said.
The regime has yet to publicly comment on the AAPP’s accusations. In the past, its spokesperson Zaw Min Tun has defended the execution of political prisoners, telling journalists “This was justice for the people. These criminals were given the chance to defend themselves.”
Prison conditions in Myanmar were never in line with international standards even before the coup, but now “the appalling prison detentions and the [military’s] crimes have intensified,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, whose findings support those of the AAPP.
Many former prisoners have reported severe beatings during arrest and detention, other mistreatment and torture, she told Al Jazeera.
Human Rights Watch has documented a number of deaths in custody from torture or from denial of adequate medical treatment, but these figures barely scratch the surface, Maung warned.
“The military’s intention in keeping the brutal detention settings is part of its ongoing assault on the people of Myanmar that amount to crimes against humanity.”
The worst happens outside the walls of the country’s traditional prisons, in torture and interrogation centres. One such facility is in Shwepyithar just outside of Yangon, or in Ye Kyi Aine, a former military detention facility that resumed operations after the coup.
“The detention settings are opaque, and the abuse that is reported at these types of facilities is horrific, including [reports] of torture and sexual violence. But these reports are not isolated to just Yangon; anywhere there is intense resistance by anti-coup forces, beatings and torture is regularly reported,” Maung said.
Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) set up by deposed lawmakers says the international community must do more to help the country’s political prisoners.
“It is crucial to emphasise that all prisoners, regardless of their circumstances, are entitled to exchange messages with their families and receive necessary medical and food-related care,” said Dr Sasa, an NUG cabinet minister.
“The Myanmar military [government] has not only shown a lack of respect for these fundamental human rights but has violently violated them,” Sasa told Al Jazeera.