Labor camp escapee tells of harrowing tale
by Myint Maung and Haui Pi
Monday, 27 October 2008 18:38
After suffering various atrocities, including torture, and working at the hard labor Lend Tlann prison camp in Tiddim Township, Chin State, U Pyinyarthiri – a Rangoon monk originally from Pyigyitagun Township, Mandalay Division – escaped to the Indian state of Mizoram on the 18th of last month.
He took part in the monk-led Saffron Revolution last September and was arrested in Monywa by authorities on the 18th of October 2007 for his participation in the uprising, subsequently being sentenced to three years imprisonment. After spending about seven months in Monywa prison he was sent to the Lend Tlann prison labour camp in Chin State in late May 2008.
Mizzima interviewed him on his life in prison, the inhumane torture he suffered and on how he escaped.
Q: What was your role in the Saffron Revolution?
A: I took part in the Saffron Revolution by joining hands with All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) leading monk U Awbartha.
Q: How were you arrested?
A: All the leading monks, including myself, were on the run when the junta issued arrest warrants after the Saffron Revolution. Military Affairs Security (MAS), Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) members and police came to my monastery and searched for me three times while I was on the run. Fortunately, I was out when they arrived. After that, I decided to flee to Monywa.
I was arrested on the 18th of October 2007 at about 7 p.m. at the Soft Link internet café. I think the café owner called police while I was checking my mail. As soon as I left the internet café the police arrived and arrested me.
Q: Who arrested you and where you were taken?
A: About 25-30 riot police and soldiers arrested me. They just said they had something to ask me and then I was taken to the police station. I replied to them, “You can ask me here if you want. What do you want to ask me?” But they said, “Answer at the police station, you will be questioned there.” Then I was taken to the No. 1 Monywa police station.
Q: How did they interrogate you?
A: They were not pleased with my answers, I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. The worst persons during torture were MAS officials Ko Ko Aung and U San Win. They kicked my chest with their combat boots and stomped on my face with my hands handcuffed behind me. Every question was accompanied by kicks and punches to my head and body. I was almost unconscious. I fell on the table in front of me when they kicked me from the back. At last I could not endure anymore such torture. They twisted my arms and tried to break them, which affected the nervous system in my hand.
They pressed between my rib bones. They slapped me on my temple and pulled my earlobes violently. They stepped on my shins which left me with severe pain until I was sentenced to prison term. I could not walk well. They interrogated me by all means available to them. My little toes were swollen. When I could not endure anymore torture, I head-butted the table in front of me, trying to knock myself unconscious. Police officer U Aung Win, sitting beside me, held me and said, “Please don’t do like that, my reverend. We are acting under the command of higher authority.”
After that, they eased their torture and harsh treatment directed at me. I was interrogated all day and night from the 18th to 24th of October, without even being allowed to drink water. When their higher officers came, they took me to another room for interrogation. These higher officials said to my interrogators, “Interrogate him until he breaks and get the required result.” They once even threatened me by saying, “We will light candles on your body during interrogation”.
They asked me if I knew 88 generation students, had any contact with them or with NLD party members. I replied, “I don’t know anyone you have asked about and have no contact with them.” But they said, “We already have all the facts. Are you a member of the ABFSU (Student Union) or CPB (communist party)? They accused me of things like that.”
Finding a library card of from the American Center in my wallet worsened the situation. They asked me if I attended political trainings conducted at the center. “What are the materials of these trainings? We will use harsher interrogation methods against you if you don’t cooperate with us.”
“You are in our hands now and we can do anything at our will. If you don’t answer and cooperate with us, we shall kill you without leaving any word or clue as to your fate, even at the expense of our designation and occupation, we don’t mind. We know many methods to kill you.”
Then they framed many counts of charges against me, such as ‘disaffection towards the state and government’, ‘joining an unlawful association’, ‘holding foreign currency illegally’. At last, they sentenced me to three years imprisonment under the Foreign Currency Regulation Act to maintain the myth that there are no political prisoners in Burma. Then I was sent to Monywa prison on the 24th of October.
Q: Please tell us about your prison life in Monywa?
A: There were many informers following me inside the prison. They watched me and eavesdropped on me when I talked with someone. I would then be called to the prison office and told, “What did you say to him? Our men are everywhere watching you. Don’t do anything wrongful, otherwise we shall defrock you”.
MAS officer U San Win and two Special Branch (SB) police personnel, along with head monk U Zawtika from Shweku Monastery in Monywa, later visited Monywa prison to defrock me at least three or four times.
U Zawtika told me, “If you are defrocked you cannot be ordained again even when you are released, as your monkshood registration card has been seized and cancelled. However, if you agree to be defrocked now, you might be allowed to be ordained again later.”
Similarly, the assistant jailor frequently tried to persuade me to be defrocked. He asked me many questions about the Buddhist disciplinary code of conduct, about the ABMA and about the monks who joined the Saffron Revolution – things like that. Later I found out this jailor was an informer of MAS officer U San Win.
Q: How many of the political prisoners in Monywa prison were Buddhist monks?
A: Yes, there are many political prisoners in Monywa prison, including six Buddhist monks. There are about ten political prisoners in total. I noticed an old political prisoner named U Saw Htun from Myitkyina, who was in a solitary confinement in cell.
Q: Was there any persecution and ill-treatment against you in prison?
A: Yes, they persecuted me in prison too. They came and interrogated me again when U Gambira was arrested. They asked me, “Where are the other leading monks of ABMA? Where does U Awbartha live? Whom do you know of the leading abbots who protested in the Saffron Revolution?” I replied that I didn’t join the Saffron Revolution. But they didn’t accept my answer.
Q: After being sentenced to prison on January 18th, where were you sent?
A: I was transferred to Kale prison on the 21st of May 2008. After spending about one week in Kale prison, I was sent to the Lend Tlann prison labour camp in Tiddim Township, Chin State, at the end of May.
Q: Did they interrogate you in Kale prison?
A: No, they didn’t interrogate me again in Kale prison as I was fettered and getting ready to be sent to prison labor camp. A total of 100 prisoners were sent there from Monywa prison. Some of them were escapees from prison labour camps. Some were porters used in military operations. These escapees were double fettered. Two-by-two, we were sent to Kale prison from Monywa prison with fetters attached.
Q: What work did you do in the labor camp?
A: We had to start hard labor by carrying heavy logs for firewood while fettered. In hilly Chin State, as you know, there are many ravines and steep hills. We had to carry these heavy logs from the bottom of the ravines to the hilltops, including Sundays, without holidays. When carrying logs, the man in back must keep pace with the front man, otherwise the security guards would beat him up. When someone fell to the ground from exhaustion after a long workday, a security guard would come and kick him in the chest. We had such ill-treatment and persecution in this labor camp.
Q: How about your health while in the labor camp?
A: We had our meals rationed, the notorious so-called ‘Briyani’ (Danbauk) meal. It was a mixture of small stones, un-husked paddy and even some mice feces. The work was so hard but we were poorly fed. Within two to three weeks, the prisoners became pale and lost weight due to malnutrition. Some fell ill and others got bruises and abscesses due to our fetters. Some got boils. I myself got a boil three or four times. A monk from Myitkyina died of the harsh prison environment on the last full moon day of Waso.
Q: Did you get any wage for your labor in the camp?
A: Every prisoner in the camp earned 2,000 kyat per day (less than two dollars), which went to the prison authority. If we had no work to do in the camp, we had to work outside. If we could earn over 2,000 kyat per day, the extra money would be ours and we could buy some food and snacks with this little money.
Q: Why did you flee to India?
A: Two SB (police intelligence) came to Lend Tlann prison labor camp and interrogated me again. They interrogated me continuously on the 15th of September from 9 to 6 p.m., asking, “Do you know the leading monks of ABMA?” I did not have a meal on that day. They kicked and punched me when I could not answer their questions. They asked me, “You are a member of ABMA, aren’t you? Where are the leading members of ABMA now?” And then I realized that they would take me again to Kale prison and put me on trial again with new charges. After that, I decided to try and escape from the camp on that night.
Q: How did you escape from Lend Tlann labor camp?
A: It has a double fence. The first one is a 10 foot high barbed wire one wound with logs. I had to scale over this perimeter, which hurt me much and left me with many injuries. But I had to scale over another 15 foot high barbed wire perimeter fence also. I was bloodied all over my body that night. After crossing the two barriers, I could heave sigh of relief. And then I walked all the night only with the light of a gas lighter. I ran and ran all the night without knowing my proper direction. I had to carefully go down some ravines in this hilly region for over four to five hours.
I crossed some heavy bushes on my hands and knees. I could not care about the danger of beasts but had to cover as much distance as I could. I ate only eastern gooseberries found in the wilderness when I was hungry and thirsty. I spent two days and two nights in this fashion in the wilderness.
Fortunately I found an ethnic Chin youth in the forest. He gave me his lunch box and water. I ate and drank everything with uncontrollable hunger. Then he gave me three cucumbers. I ate them all to quench my thirst. I asked him to show me the way to the Indian border. He showed me the correct way to go. I gave him 2,000 kyat as a thank you, all the money I had. At last, I reached Aizawl, the capital city of Mizoram in India.
Q: Were you kept on fetters when you escaped from the camp?
A: They removed the fetters after I gave 50,000 kyat to the prison authority in mid-August, which made it easy to escape from the camp.
Q: What would you like to say concerning the junta’s arbitrary arrest of monks?
A: Even in the brutal and wicked Anglo and Japanese occupations of Burma, these war mongers and imperialists didn’t persecute the monks as the junta is doing now. I cannot find proper words to express the brutality and wickedness of the ruling junta which claims themselves as devout and venerated devotees of the Buddhist Sasana (teachings).
I wish them to stop such atrocities otherwise they will be thrown into the dustbin of history. Nowadays the strongmen and dictators around the world are falling one after another. The world can scarcely see the ruling junta in Burma. They have time to correct their erroneous views. The hatred and prejudice pierced into their hearts will create suffering for themselves and also for the entire people. As soon as they can see the truth, this hatred and prejudice can be converted then and there. Otherwise, the suffering of the people will be exacerbated. I would like to urge them to correct themselves as soon as possible.
Q: What is your future plan?
A: Though the Saffron Revolution movement was suppressed by the violent and brutal crackdown unleashed by the junta, and followed by arbitrary arrest, torture and persecution, there are still nearly 300,000-400,000 monks with ABMA leading abbot U Awbartha. I am determined to continue my struggle against this evil regime by non-violent means, along with my fellow monks and lay people, until my death.
The current situation is like the elephant taking a step backwards to deliver a heavy blow with its tusk soon after. Many brave fighters were born out of this Saffron Revolution. They are like the soccer stars. We only need teamwork with perfect and accurate passing, precise shots on goal and conviction and determination for victory. We are rebuilding these things now.
The most important thing is not to be selfish when the ball is at your feet. Every pro-democracy and democracy loving organization needs to practice democratic principles and values themselves.
Democracy cannot be given by others, it must be practiced by the self. There is no democracy in the junta’s hands, so we cannot ask for democracy from them. It is wasting time. The people must be in unity with strong conviction and determination to achieve total victory. They must join hands with monks and students. I myself, with strong commitment, am determined to join hands with them in this struggle.