Recent incidents inside some of Myanmar’s most notorious prisons point to harsher repression and deepening tensions
Two of Myanmar’s most notorious detention centres carried out brutal crackdowns on political prisoners over the past week, signalling the junta’s determination to impose harsh penalties on detained dissidents.
On Sunday, two political prisoners were beaten to death and 13 others were injured during a clash inside Mandalay’s Obo Prison, according to a lawyer familiar with the situation.
A day later, at least two political detainees were shot and another 60 were injured after prison authorities moved to crush a protest at Hpa-An Prison in Karen (Kayin) State, sources there reported.
Both incidents appear to be related to moves by prison authorities to mix political prisoners with ordinary prisoners convicted on criminal charges.
This was more clearly the case in Hpa-An, where political prisoners staged a sitting protest after they were ordered to leave a ward normally reserved for inmates whose charges are related to their political activities.
According to prison sources, the prisoners were forcibly moved to another ward and attacked with sharpened bamboo sticks and slingshots if they failed to follow orders.
Gunshots were also heard coming from the direction of cells holding political prisoners, but it could not be confirmed at the time of reporting 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 heavy-handed.
“We don’t know how it started, but we do know that prison authorities, including the prison superintendent, beat the political prisoners using metal batons,” said a lawyer with contacts inside the prison.
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 have told Myanmar Now that political detainees are routinely harassed at Obo. This includes claims of officials firing guns to terrorise the prisoners.
There have also reportedly been tensions between political prisoners and criminal convicts, with prison authorities siding with the latter in disputes.
A friend of one inmate said that there were also other serious issues contributing to the tense situation at the prison, including unclean drinking water and a lack of healthcare.
Hpa-An prison in Karen State (Karen Information Center)
Tensions have been high at many prisons in Myanmar, 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 Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), nearly 11,000 people regime opponents remain behind bars more than a year after the military takeover.
Some of the political prisoners currently being held at Obo Prison were transferred there two months ago following a riot at Monywa Prison. Guards reportedly discharged their weapons to end a fight that had broken out there between political detainees and criminal convicts on April 3.
At least 20 of the political prisoners involved in that incident were placed in isolation cells, while 150 were transferred to Obo and Myingyan prisons, sources reported.
According to one source at the prison, inmates incarcerated for resisting the return of military rule make up more than half of Monywa Prison’s roughly 900 detainees.
On June 1, there was another incident there involving two female prisoners who were slapped by a warder for arguing with each other. Other prisoners were not happy about the way the situation was handled, a prison source said.
There have also been complaints from female prisoners about restrictions related to taking showers and the presence of male officers during searches of the female ward.
The prison’s new superintendent, Wai Min Latt, has also been criticised for his policies. On May 23, he imposed a new rule against reading after 9pm, and he has also been accused of “terrorising” prisoners.
According to one inmate, officers from the military’s Northwestern 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 ascertained.
There were also signs of trouble at Insein Prison in April. In the third week of the month, more than 100 political prisoners, including student leaders, were transferred to detention centres in other parts of the country, according to prison sources.
The reason for this move was not clear, but it came weeks after Khant Thu Aung, the chair of the Yangon University of Economics Students’ Union, was beaten for refusing to sit in position after he was transferred to a ward for criminals.
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.
Lawyers claim that nearly 90 prisoners were beaten—some to the point of unconsciousness—for refusing to leave their cells and singing an anti-dictatorship song
In July of last year, the military was called in to crush a protest at Insein Prison after inmates began chanting anti-dictatorship slogans. According to AAPP, the protest began in two wards for female prisoners and then spread to the rest of the prison.
Days later, in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, the junta released more than 4,200 inmates from prisons around 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 taking part 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 prison conditions around the world, has come under fire for its lack of an effective response to the situation in Myanmar.
The sister of one injured inmate being held in Hpa-An Prison said that she has called the ICRC office in Yangon repeatedly, but has yet to receive any information about her brother.
“They said we had to visit their office in person, and we did exactly that, but we still don’t know anything,” she said.
Jacequeline Fernandez, the communications manager for ICRC Myanmar, said that the organisation has been hampered in its efforts to gain access to prisons due to restrictions that have been in place since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to monitor the situation of the prisoners and provide humanitarian aid for them as we are not allowed to visit the prisons in person,” she said.
“ICRC can, however, help the prisoners find their relatives according to the policies of the ICRC’s programs,” she added.