Monday, November 10, 2008

Burmese dissident deserves release

By Zin Linn
Column: Burma Question Published: November 07, 2008
Original Post-

Bangkok, Thailand — Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be a prisoner of conscience for a few days in the Burmese military junta's infamous Insein prison? The military authorities confine you in an undersized cell, 8.5 by 11.5 feet, with only a bamboo mat on the concrete floor. Sleeping, eating, walking and going to the bathroom are all done in the same place.
You cannot see the sun, the moon or the stars. You are intentionally barred from breathing fresh air, eating nutritious food and drinking pure water. Books, periodicals, radio and television are out of the question. If you get sick, no medical worker will check on you until you have lost consciousness.

Under such harsh conditions, Zaw Myint Maung, an experienced physician who never committed even a small crime, has been languishing in prison for nearly two decades. As a one-time cell mate of his, each moment I think about his situation in the junta's atrocious dungeon, I feel uneasy.

It was 1994, in the cell compound of the infamous Insein Prison. I was in cell No. 10 of cell block No. 3 with Zaw Myint Maung, a healthy and handsome man of short stature with tan skin. He was very kind and helpful not only to inmates, but also to wardens and prison officers, who consulted him in health matters. Because of his calm, warm manner as an experienced medical doctor, the prison staff paid him respect behind the military intelligence officers’ backs.

Hence, he managed to form a medical assistance committee in prison, smuggling medicines and disposable syringes into prison cells. He treated his fellow inmates’ various sicknesses and even did minor surgeries with the help of the wardens who respected him. Many wardens regarded the doctor as their health consultant in those days.

A graduate from the Mandalay Institute of Medicine in 1979, he became head physician of Ywar-thit-kyi District Hospital in Sgaing Division in 1982. He worked in the biochemistry department of the Mandalay Institute of Medicine for eight years. During the 1988 People's Uprising, he was elected secretary of the Mandalay Doctors' Association.

Then he became a member of the National League for Democracy and was later elected as a member of Parliament from Mandalay’s Amarapura township in 1990. After the junta refused to honor the election results, he and some members of Parliament held secret meetings to find a political way out. As a result, Zaw Myint Maung was arrested on Nov. 22 and put on trial for allegedly participating in meetings to form a parallel government. He was charged with treason against the nation and sentenced to 25 years in prison at a military tribunal with no legal representation.

He has been languishing in the junta's hellish prison for 18 years, or one-third of his life. While in Insein Prison, he underwent many interrogations by intelligence officials about his views on the military regime and political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. The authorities tried to persuade him to collaborate with them, but they could not win over his strong political aspiration of building a democratic Burma. As a staunch supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, he is on the top of the junta's blacklist.

I remember one noteworthy vision of the doctor. He said, “Democracy is on the march around the world, including Burma. But we need commitment to work selflessly with grassroots people until the day that a free Burma emerges. The struggle for freedom may need more time. But it will not be beyond measure. It’s a war between the just and unjust. The just will prevail at last."

In 1995, fellow political prisoners from various organizations actively worked to collect valid facts and figures on human rights abuses experienced in prison, for a report to be sent to the United Nations on the situation of human rights in Burma. Zaw Myint Maung was one of the coordinators of this effort.

On July 15, 1995, the report, "Human Rights Abuses in the Junta's Prisons," together with a petition of over 100 political prisoners, was successfully smuggled out. Within weeks, the report was sent to Yozo Yokota, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Burma.

The release of both the report and the petition hurt the junta’s image and made the generals extremely angry. Consequently, the prison cell compound was searched, and many inmates were thrown into dark cells and interrogated while being deprived of food and sleep.

Zaw Myint Maung was one of 24 political prisoners who were given further prison sentences on March 28, 1996, in connection with their circulation of news journals within the prison and their efforts to report human rights violations to the United Nations. The doctor was alleged to have written politically agitating poems and to have signed a petition for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

During the investigation, he and seven others, including U Win Tin, a famous journalist and senior member of the NLD, were held in cells designed for military dogs, made to sleep on concrete floors without bedding during winter and left without food and water.

Maung was held in a dog cell between Nov. 1995 and May 1996. The group of 24 had no attorneys to defend them against the charges they faced. They were charged with threatening prison security and forming anti-junta organizations in prison. The doctor was then sentenced to an additional 12 years’ imprisonment under both charges.

On April 3, 1997, he was transferred to the Myit-kyi-na prison in the state of Kachin, which is in the north of Burma and has extreme weather. Harsh prison conditions are still commonplace in Burmese prisons, and many prisoners suffer from serious mental disorders resulting from long periods of solitary confinement.

Prisoners cannot get essential medical treatment even in Insein Prison, which is the model prison in Burma. Even worse is the fact that when political prisoners face a fatal illness, they will not be hospitalized unless they abandon their dissident beliefs. Hundreds of deaths are due to the authorities' unnecessarily negligence in medical treatment. Currently, there are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, including 18 members of Parliament, 178 female prisoners and 213 Buddhist monks.

The valiant, imprisoned physician has constantly refused to sign a confession promising to abandon his political beliefs as a condition for his release. Zaw Myint Maung is the father of two sons and one daughter. He has not been able to show fatherly love to his children for nearly two decades. He himself has been suffering from hemorrhoids and stomach pain. With his 57th birthday approaching on Dec. 11, the doctor deserves freedom as a birthday present for his contributions to society.

Burma has been called "the world's largest open prison for prisoners of conscience." There are over 2,100 political prisoners still languishing in Burmese prisons, among whom Zaw Myint Maung may be Burma's longest-serving prisoner of conscience.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." But Zaw Myint Maung has been suffering from torture and three unjust prison sentences for almost 37 years.

It would be great if international NGOs launched a concerted effort to free political prisoners in Burma, since this situation not only involves regional politics, but is also connected with global humanitarianism. For that reason, the United Nations, ASEAN, the European Union and China should consider pressuring the State Peace and Development Council to free all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally.


(Zin Linn is a freelance Burmese journalist living in exile. He currently serves as information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma in Bangkok, Thailand. He is also vice-president of the Burma Media Association, which is affiliated with the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers. He can be contacted at ©Copyright Zin Linn.)

No comments: