18 Years in Prison and Counting
By ZIN LINN
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Few people know him—the 57-year-old physician who has spent the past 18 years in the Burmese regime’s prison cells, sleeping on a rough mat and eating scraps of food alone in a dark cell with bad air and no sunlight.
He has no idea if he will ever live with his wife, two sons and daughter again.
|Zaw Myint Maung has spent the past 18 years in the junta’s jails.|
His name is Zaw Myint Maung, and he was detained after winning a seat in the 1990 elections in Amarapura Township in Mandalay, an election that was nullified by the military regime. He was accused of high treason for his efforts to work with pro-democracy colleagues who were trying to find a way to bridge differences between the movement and the junta. He received a 25-year prison sentence.In 1994, I was his cellmate in cell No. 10 in cellblock 3 in the infamous Insein Prison in Rangoon.
Zaw Myint Maung is a handsome man, short in stature with tan skin. He is always very kind and helpful, not only to fellow prisoners but also to wardens and prison officers, who often consult with him on health matters. Because of his calm and warm manner, and his stature as an experienced medical doctor, the prison staff paid him respect when military intelligence officers were not around.
He managed to form a medical assistance committee in his cell compound and sometimes succeeded in smuggling medicine and disposable syringes into the prison. He treated inmates for various illnesses, and even performed minor surgery with the help of sympathetic prison officials.
In Insein Prison, the military intelligence officials interrogated him and tried to persuade him to collaborate with them in exchange for his release. He never wavered in his loyalty to the democracy movement.
I remember him saying words to the effect: “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 is not impossible.”
He has a vision, and he has courage. In 1995, after he and fellow prisoners had collected information about human rights abuses in Burma’s prisons, he personally handed over the report to the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma while he was visiting the prison.
The statement titled “Human Rights Abuses in the Junta’s Prisons,” together with a petition from more than 100 political prisoners, was successfully distributed to the international community.
The release of both the report and petition damaged the junta’s image and drew the generals’ wrath. Zaw Myint Maung and some other colleagues were placed in a “dog cell” for about six months in retribution.
In March 1996, Zaw Myint Maung was sentenced to an additional 12 years in prison for his role in distributing the human rights report. One year later, he was transferred to Myitkyina Prison in northern Kachin State.
Deplorable prison conditions are commonplace in Burmese prisons and detention centers. Many prisoners suffer from serious mental disorders resulting from long periods of solitary confinement.
Currently, there are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burmese prisons, including 18 elected members of parliament. There are more than 178 female political prisoners and more than 200 Buddhist monks.
Zaw Myint Maung 57th birthday will be in December. He will silently celebrate his birthday alone in his cell, just like in the previous 17 years.
Zin Linn is a former political prisoner and spokesman for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma in exile.