Burmese Days

by Nay Tin Myint, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2007

I survived 15 years in a Burmese jail. Seven of those years were spent in solitary confinement. My only crime was to give a speech.

Now I am concerned for the well-being of the hundreds of people who have been arrested in recent weeks in Burma. The arrests began when Burma's '88 Generation Students group (the name comes from the 1988 uprising when troops opened fire on student demonstrators, killing thousands) began protesting on Aug. 19. The protest was in response to the dramatic increase in fuel prices. The Burmese regime responded swiftly and brutally by arresting the leaders of the protest in the middle of the night.

These activists will likely be sentenced to 20 years imprisonment without trial. Trials don't exist in Burma. Having experienced the brutality and cruelty of the interrogation centers and prisons in Burma, I have no doubt they are being severely tortured. There are rumors that many have been hospitalized. All of these activists have previously served lengthy prison sentences like mine.

Life in a Burmese prison must be the closest thing to hell. The regime breaks all international laws, even those it has agreed to uphold. Torture is the main method of interrogation and intimidation. The idea is to degrade, humiliate and break our spirit by methods such as electric shock, heavy shackles, and inedible and odorous food and later. I was shackled and chained for two-and-a-half years. While shackled, I was forced to crawl over sharpened stones all the while being severely beaten. Of course I was not allowed to see a doctor.

They put my body in prison, but I decided they could not have my mind. We were not permitted to read or write and were given barely enough food.

Only after four years, a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) loosened some of these restrictions. But most of the medicine and supplies the ICRC brought us were taken away and sold by the prison authorities; if we needed injections, the same few needles were used for all of us. The number of deaths in prison due to HIV-AIDS is unknown.

In June, the president of the ICRC, in an unprecedented action, strongly denounced the regime publicly for major violations of international humanitarian law. The ICRC has not been allowed access to Burmese prisons since 2005.

During my first two or three months in prison I was very depressed. I wanted to see my parents, talk to my friends and take a bath. Then I decided that to survive I would put these desires out of my mind and concentrate on how not to die in prison. I had to survive to deny the Burmese military victory over me and the aspirations of all my comrades.
My Buddhist religion, instilled in me by my parents, along with daily meditation, kept my mind focused and sharp.

For Buddhists, monks are revered above all others. Even to touch a monk is forbidden. Therefore, to see monks being humiliated by having their robes publicly removed, and by being arrested, beaten and shot, is an outrage in such a devoutly Buddhist country.

When I now think of those monks, and the imprisoned democracy activists Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi and other '88 Generation leaders, I am sad but hopeful. These brave friends dared to defy the authorities with peaceful demonstrations against a mismanaged economy, knowing full well they were risking jail -- if not death. I know they will survive, because they, like me, believe in the rightness of our cause. More importantly, they believe in themselves.

The regime's violent crackdown against peaceful protests in 1988 did not solve the problems facing the country. Nor will its brutal response to these demonstrations taking place almost 20 years later. After decades of civil war and years of military rule it is clear that the regime's approach is not the solution. Without genuine dialogue leading to a
permanent political solution, there can be no positive outcome for the country.

The world was not watching in 1988 when thousands were killed by the guns of the regime. They are watching now. The people of Burma must not be let down again.

Mr. Myint, a founder of Burma's National League for Democracy Youth and the '88 Generation Students group, served 15 years in a Burmese prison, seven in solitary confinement.