Two of Myanmar’s most notorious detention centers have carried out a brutal crackdown on political prisoners over the past week, signaling the junta’s determination to impose harsh sentences on detained dissidents.
On Sunday, two political prisoners were beaten to death and 13 others were injured in a clash inside Obo prison in Mandalay, according to a lawyer familiar with the situation.
A day later, at least two political detainees were shot dead and 60 others were injured after prison authorities decided to crush a protest at Hpa-An prison in Karen (Kayin) state, reports sources.
Both incidents appear to be linked to measures taken by the prison authorities to mix political prisoners with common law prisoners convicted of criminal offences.
This was most clearly the case in Hpa-An, where political prisoners staged a sit-down protest after being ordered out of a ward normally reserved for detainees whose charges relate to their political activities.
According to prison sources, prisoners were forcibly moved to another ward and attacked with sharpened bamboo sticks and slingshots if they did not obey orders.
Gunshots were also heard from cells holding political prisoners, but it could not be confirmed at the time of writing whether any of them had been shot.
What triggered the crackdown at Obo prison was less clear, but the approach taken by prison authorities there was equally brutal.
“We don’t know how it started, but we do know that the prison authorities, including the prison warden, beat political prisoners with metal batons,” a lawyer with contacts said. prison interior.
According to the lawyer, two prisoners were confirmed dead and 13 others were sent to the prison hospital to receive treatment for their injuries.
Other sources told Myanmar Now that political detainees are regularly harassed in Obo. This includes claims that officials fired guns to terrorize prisoners.
There have also reportedly been tensions between political prisoners and convicts, with prison authorities siding with the latter in disputes.
A friend of an inmate said there were also other serious issues contributing to the tense situation in the prison, including unsafe drinking water and lack of healthcare.
Tensions are high in many Myanmar prisons, in part due to overcrowding caused by the massive influx of political prisoners into the country’s penal system since last year’s coup.
According to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP), nearly 11,000 opponents of the regime remain behind bars more than a year after the military coup.
Some of the political prisoners currently held in Obo prison were transferred there two months ago following a riot at Monywa prison. Guards reportedly discharged their weapons to break up a fight that broke out there between political detainees and criminal convicts on April 3.
At least 20 of the political prisoners involved in the incident have been placed in solitary confinement cells, while 150 have been moved to Obo and Myingyan prisons, sources said.
According to a prison source, detainees incarcerated for resisting the return of military rule make up more than half of the approximately 900 inmates in Monywa prison.
On June 1, there was another incident involving two inmates who were slapped by a guard for arguing. Other prisoners were unhappy with the way the situation had been handled, a prison source said.
Inmates also complained about restrictions on taking showers and the presence of male officers during searches in the women’s ward.
The prison’s new warden, Wai Min Latt, has also been criticized for his policies. On May 23, he imposed a new rule prohibiting reading after 9 p.m., and he was also accused of “terrorizing” prisoners.
According to one detainee, officers from the army’s North West Regional Command, based in Monywa, visited the prison in late May to meet with convicted murderers.
This could not be confirmed and the reason for the alleged visit could not be established.
There were also signs of trouble at Insein Prison in April. During the third week of the month, more than 100 political prisoners, including student leaders, were transferred to detention centers in other parts of the country, according to prison sources.
The reason for the move was unclear, but it came weeks after Khant Thu Aung, the president of the Yangon University of Economics Student Union, was beaten for refusing to stand. sit down after being transferred to a criminal precinct.
Khant Thu Aung, who was sentenced in February to three years in prison for incitement, was also denied permission to receive letters, according to a relative.
In July last year the army was called in to crush a protest at Insein prison after inmates began chanting anti-dictatorship slogans. According to the AAPP, the demonstration began in two areas reserved for female prisoners, then spread to the rest of the prison.
A few days later, in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, the junta released more than 4,200 inmates from prisons across the country. Almost none, however, were political prisoners.
In December, around 90 political prisoners inside Insein prison were beaten and placed in solitary confinement for participating in a nationwide silent strike by refusing to leave their cells, according to their lawyers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors detention conditions around the world, has been criticized for its lack of an effective response to the situation in Myanmar.
The sister of an injured detainee held in Hpa-An prison said she had called the ICRC office in Yangon several times, but still had not received any information about her brother.
“They said we had to visit their office in person, and we did just that, but we still don’t know anything,” she said.
Jacequeline Fernandez, the ICRC’s communications officer in Myanmar, said the organization has been hampered in its efforts to gain access to prisons due to restrictions in place since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to monitor the situation of prisoners and provide them with humanitarian aid as we are not allowed to visit prisons in person,” she said.
“The ICRC can, however, help prisoners find their relatives in accordance with ICRC program policies,” she added.