Authorities in Myanmar’s infamous Insein Prison brutally beat political prisoners who joined a nationwide “Silent Strike” on Human Rights Day to protest the military regime, and threw organizers into solitary confinement, according to sources close to the prisoners.
Citizens across Myanmar marked Dec. 10 with a public boycott in protest of the junta’s Feb. 1 coup and its disregard for human rights, leaving towns and cities throughout the country eerily quiet. Nearly all businesses — particularly those in the regions of Yangon, Mandalay, Sagaing, Magway and Irrawaddy, as well as Kachin and Chin states — were shuttered, and residents avoided any form of public interaction.
Dozens of political prisoners held in Yangon’s Insein Prison, known for its poor conditions, chose to show their solidarity with those protesting by refusing to leave their cells following morning roll call, according to Tun Kyi, a member of the Former Political Prisoners Society. They stayed in the cell throughout the day and in the evening sang the protest song “Our Pledge in Blood” in unison, he said.
“[Prison officials] came in [later] and broke up the strike,” Tun Kyi told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“As far as I know about 100 of the inmates involved were beaten up, after which [authorities] sorted out the leaders and put them into solitary confinement. There were several who got injured during the fracas and these prisoners are now receiving medical treatment in the prison hospital.”
A former political prisoner who was released from Insein Prison in September cited sources within the facility as saying that the warden led guards into the cell after 4:00 p.m., “pulled [the prisoners] out into the main square and began hitting them.”
“I heard some of the victims were seriously injured, some of them bleeding from their mouths and ears,” the former political prisoner said.
When contacted by RFA, Chan Aye Kyaw, deputy director of the Department of Prisons, declined to comment, saying he had no authority to speak to the press.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied that there had been any protests in Insein Prison.
Soe Yar Za Tun, a freelance journalist who was released from Insein Prison in June, said that protests inside prisons are significantly more dangerous than those held outside. He urged rights groups to monitor the status of those involved in last week’s action.
“I'm worried that they will be severely punished, and no lawyer can help them,” he said. “It’s very common that people inside get beaten up as punishment.”
Human rights lawyer Khin Maung Myint emphasized to RFA that it was illegal to beat the protesters.
“They cannot beat up prisoners if there is no rioting, according to the prison manual. It’s not right to beat inmates just because they were holding a silent strike. It’s against prison rules,” he said.
A spokesman for Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners told RFA that prisoners deserve basic human rights, including freedom of expression.
On July 23, scores of prisoners were released across Myanmar — political prisoners excluded. At the time, political prisoners in Insein Prison staged a protest due to lack of access to medical care and tightening prison rules. According to sources close to the prison, about 20 inmates were beaten and kept in confinement.
According to RFA’s investigations, at least 117 people have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, life in prison, or death in Insein Prison under “military tribunals” since the Feb. 1 coup, when the junta seized power from the country’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Of those, 87 were sentenced to death, while 30 others were sentenced to terms ranging from seven years to life in prison. Lawyers told RFA that they were sentenced without the right to defend themselves and had been subjected to violations of both their human and legal rights because they were arrested in areas that had been declared to be under martial law.
In addition to charges of protesting the military coup, many were charged for alleged links to the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), Parliament’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives (CRPH), and the anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia.
“The punishments are not proportionate with the crimes,” said human rights lawyer Khin Maung Myint.
“The cases were prejudged, and they have a consistent tendency to give the maximum penalty. It is really unjustified legally.”
Furthermore, those sentenced have no right to appeal their conviction, which lawyers called an abuse of legal rights.
A family member of Thar Zaw, who recently received a life imprisonment sentence under the Anti-Terrorism Law by the Hlaing Tharyar Military Tribunal, told RFA that he had no contact with him since his arrest.
“What can we say? They are just doing what they want to do,” the family member said. “What I can say is, it was an injustice. And I’m not alone. There are many like us. The military has taken the law into its own hands.”
NLD lawmakers targeted
Meanwhile, authorities are targeting parliamentarians from the NLD for arrest, detaining nearly 90 over the past 10 months. Some of those who have not been arrested are on the run or have relocated to areas under the control of ethnic armies that are fighting the junta, sources said.
In Myanmar’s November 2020 elections, the NLD won 920 constituencies out of a total of 1,117. However, 89 of them were arrested by the military on various charges following the Feb. 1 coup.
Of the more than 800 remaining MPs, the majority have signed, under pressure from the junta, a pledge not to involve themselves with the CRPH and have ceased all political activities.
Naing Htoo Aung, the NLD MP for Nahtogyi township, told RFA that he chose to relocate to an area under the control of an ethnic army because the military killed peaceful protesters, leaving him with no choice but to take up arms.
“In carrying out our duties in the past, we had to deal with legal issues in Parliament,” said Naing Htoo Aung, who is a member of the NLD Central Committee and current permanent secretary of the NUG’s Ministry of Defense.
“But now, we are in such a situation that we need to provide armed protection to the people.”
In the weeks and months since the coup, security personnel have committed human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, rapes and killings. More than 8,000 civilians have been arrested and 1,339 killed by junta authorities since February, according to the AAPP, mostly during non-violent protests of the coup.
NUG Minister of Electricity and Energy Soe Thura Tun, from Kungyangon township, told RFA that although the life of an MP is vastly different from that of an armed revolutionary, he had to join the resistance because the people had chosen this path.
“This revolution is the revolution of the people. It isn’t the revolution of the NLD. It wasn't brought about by parliamentarians,” he said.
“The revolution came about because the junta repeatedly killed people who were nonviolently protesting for peace. The people did not make the decision individually — the entire populace did. This was not planned. It happened because it was necessary.”
The NLD’s Working Committee declined to confirm how many lawmakers are involved in armed resistance to the junta, citing security concerns.
— Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.