By Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
Senior Advocacy Officer, Burma Campaign UK
The number of political prisoners in Burma is growing every day since the military staged a coup on 1 February.
The latest figure is over 4,250 in detention, and more than 5,000 arrested in total, but this does not include some people who have been arrested or simply disappeared in very remote ethnic areas of Burma.
The military is not only carrying out the targeted arrest of individuals who they might consider a “risk”, but they are also conducting random mass arrests of civilians as a means of trying to instil fear and crush dissent.
You don’t need to be a peaceful protester to face arrest or intimidation. You can be a shopkeeper, bystander, a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) supporter, a social influencer or just an ordinary citizen. It’s heart-breaking to see the reports of detainees being tortured and killed in custody. There are also reports of family members getting arrested when the military can’t find the family member they want to arrest.
Despite ongoing violence and mass arrests, people continue to protest and speak out against the military junta every day. Doctors, teachers, nurses and many others who are involved in the CDM are under increased pressure to go back to work or face arrest. The military issued warrants and revoked licences for many doctors and nurses for taking part in the CDM. After their release, they will have a criminal record, which makes it almost impossible to go back to their jobs or find new jobs.
Many university students should be pursuing their dreams, but instead, they are being thrown into jail for protesting. It’s unlikely they will be able to go back to their studies after prison. For many decades, criminal records for political prisoners have been used as a form of repression by the junta to ostracise activists and to discourage people from speaking out. Having a criminal record can impact them and their families for the rest of their lives, often meaning struggling to survive and living in poverty.
In February, the military revised Burma’s Penal Code to target and arrest anyone who speaks out against the coup. The Code of Criminal Procedure was also amended so they can arrest people without warrants and deny bail. Every day, groups of people are being charged under the new 505-A law. Its broad language – “cause fear, spread false news, agitate directly or indirectly criminal offence against a government employee” makes it possible for anyone to be arrested. Punishment for violation of 505-A is up to 3 years in prison.
Additionally, we still don’t know the location of many political prisoners and many of them still haven’t been charged. My father was arrested in the early hours on 1 February, and we found out that he was charged and detained in Insein prison only two months after his arrest. In the midst of everything, we are “lucky” to know where he is but many families still don’t have that reassurance.
The military is also filing politically motivated charges against activists and civilians to make sure that they can keep them in prison. Armed soldiers forcibly arrested U Ko Htwe in Namhsan on 11 February and later charged him with violating “Covid safety regulations”. The irony is that soldiers themselves violated covid regulations by showing up in a group to arrest U Ko Htwe. U Ko Htwe’s crime is being an ordinary citizen who happens to support the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Currently, trials are being held inside prison out of public view and families cannot attend. Some are allowed to have lawyers but it’s hard to know how many are on trial without legal counsel. Trials in Burma are just formalities and almost all of them would certainly be sentenced under politically motivated charges.
Burma’s prisons are known for being unhygienic and not providing adequate food or healthcare. Now prisons are overcrowded as arrests continue. Some have been arrested with injuries and some need regular healthcare for their underlying health issues such as hypertension, diabetes, or cancer, so it is an increasingly worrying situation for families.
Families also have to provide food, medicines and other essentials regularly, which puts a financial toll on them. Not all families can afford to send food regularly so many political prisoners have to survive on watery soup, bad rice and fish paste. There is a lovely tradition among political prisoners of sharing the little amount of food they received from families with each other, but it’s still not enough to provide them with essential nutrition in the long run.
Families of political prisoners are unsung heroes who give unrelenting support in the background. They take on numerous roles as self-made counsellors, motivators, cooks, friends and they don’t often get the credit that they deserve. At the moment, family visits are not allowed. Even when families can visit, it would be a 15-30 minute monitored visit every month where you can’t talk openly or even embrace each other. Despite those restrictions, such moments are precious to see our loved ones and be assured that they are in good health.
For both activists and families, it is very emotionally taxing to go through years of hardship and struggle. Some families became estranged from each other and most former political prisoners need to readjust to their lives outside prison. They need help financially to restart their lives and mental health support after going through torture and imprisonment. But under dictatorships and successive governments, none of the former political prisoners have received an apology or compensation for being unlawfully arrested.
When an individual is unlawfully arrested in Burma, there is a huge socio-economic impact on both a political prisoner and family members. Activists know they will face arrest, lifelong trauma and uncertainty when they stand up for freedom and federal democracy, but Burma has countless heroes.
When we rid our country of the military, which we will, political prisoners and their families must not be forgotten as they were for the past ten years. We all have a special obligation for them and their sacrifices. The new democratic government must ensure their criminal records are removed, and provide a special package of support for former prisoners and their families. They will need extra healthcare because of torture and malnutrition. They will need financial support, housing and, as so many students have lost their chance for education, free university education.
When we win our freedom, we will owe political prisoners a great debt for their sacrifice, and it’s a debt we must make sure we pay.