Life behind bars
The 17 DVB reporters are among nearly 2,100 political prisoners languishing in jails across Burma. Once imprisoned, they are effectively taken off the public radar – little news of them can reach the outside world, and their fate is left in the hands of prison authorities known for meting out hefty physical and psychological abuse.
Burma is home to 43 prisons and around 100 labour camps spread across the country, a number of which are located in the remote frontier regions hundreds of miles from their homes, and where families struggle to visit. Conditions in some of these prisons, particularly those close to Burma’s mountainous border with China, are notoriously harsh, with winters marked by freezing temperature and the wet season fuelling the spread of malaria. The situation is compounded by poor healthcare facilities in the prisons, where inmates are often forced to pay bribes in return for medical treatment. A report last year by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPPB) found that there was only one trained doctor for every 8,000 prisoners in the country.
The infamous Insein prison in Rangoon, built by the British in 1871, is home to the majority of Burma’s political prisoners. It is the country’s largest prison, yet around 10,000 inmates are crammed into a panoptican-style institution built to house barely half that. Most of these are convicted after private hearings in the prison’s own Special Court, where media is barred from entering. Further north in Mandalay division is Myingyan prison, where numbers of activists, MPs, lawyers and so on are kept in solitary confinement, forced to spend years in a cell with just a bucket and sleeping mat.
Most will have spent up to a month in interrogation centres prior to being convicted. These periods are marked by lengthy bouts of physical and psychological torture, including sleep deprivation, beatings, stress positions and humiliation.
Among the political prisoners are 225 monks, 11 MPs, 12 lawyers, eight doctors, 157 women, and nearly 30 media workers. Burma has been known to sentence people as young as 14 to years in prison for seemingly minor political activities such as the distribution of leaflets. One man, General Hso Ten, the chairman of the Shan State Peace Council, is serving a 106-year sentence for high treason.