Interview the young female political prisoner: The inmate of Insein

Written by Salween Post

Insein Prison, which holds thousands of political activists, is well known as the biggest and most cruel place of detention in Burma. No light penetrates the cells in solitary confinement, and throughout the facility many have lost their lives. Those who survive will never forget the nightmare of having been here. Ma Su Mon , 28, was once the third-ranked leader of the National League for Democracy youth group. At 19 she became the youngest female political prisoner at Insein. For 11 months she was brutalized, and her life was constantly under threat.

Q: What drew you into the political movement?
I am the fourth of six children, but was the first in my family to pass the entrance exam at university – I attended Dagon University in Rangoon. I’ve always liked learning, and I used to dream of being a teacher. I was never interested in politics until 1996, when the military junta closed all the universities. I was furious that I couldn’t continue studying.

My friends and I talked about the reasons for the clampdown. One of my classmates’ father was elected to the House of Representative under the NLD banner [the 1990 poll subverted by the junta], and she told us about the political situation and invited us to the NLD party office in Rangoon. The office reminded me of a classroom, with its library. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi let us select books from the library to read and arranged a discussion group for us to exchange ideas from what we read. She joined the group every time she could.

In the beginning I took part in activities like the general youth group, and then in 1997 I decided to join the NLD Youth.

Q: Why did you want to become a full member?
I love and respect Suu Kyi. She was soon after that placed under house arrest, and some of my friends were imprisoned, so I wanted to fully participate in the political movement, because it became the new university in my life. I very much related to this office and would get anxious if I couldn’t come here. Even though my friends and I didn’t have much money, and we had to split up our daily expenses for transportation and food, I was very happy.

Q: Were you afraid of being imprisoned?
Yes, but Suu Kyi told us it was normal to be scared, and in fact we should be scared. If this political situation continues, we will not be safe anywhere. So we have to fight, and turn our fear into the willpower to win our freedom.

Q: How did your family feel about your involvement?
My father is a civil servant at the agriculture ministry and my mother is a housewife. We live in a civil-service community owned by the government. Most people won’t take part in any political activity. My parents voted for the NLD in 1990, but they didn’t want us to get involved in these kinds of things. I didn’t tell them the truth because I was worried that they would reprimand me.

Later, though, my father saw me listening to the radio news, and the university was closed for a long time, and he started to worry that I would become politically active. So he found me a cashier’s job at his friend’s company, which happened to be near the NLD office. This gave me the chance to sneak in every day after work. I told my parents I’d applied for a computer course, and they never suspected anything until I got arrested.

One day, military intelligence officials came to my house and asked about me. My mother told them I’d applied for a computer course and they left. I didn’t want my parents to worry, so I lied to them and said maybe they came looking for me because my friend’s father was an NLD member of the House of Representatives.

Q: How did you get arrested?
Three years after joining the party I received more important assignments. On March 7, 2000, the month before I was arrested, Suu Kyi appointed me as the youth leader in Dagon, the town where I live, making me the third-ranked leader of the NLD youth group. It was very proud and wanted to work even harder, but it also worried me that I would be monitored by military intelligence. On March 13 – Burma’s Human Rights Day – the NLD organised a human-rights poetry contest. I entered and won top prize in the free-verse category. My poem described my feelings over missing my studies because the university was closed. I had my photo taken with Suu Kyi and kept it in my bedroom, which ended up being the key evidence that got me imprisoned.

Q: What happened on the day of your arrest?
I was arrested on April 12 while I was cleaning the NLD office ready for the Burmese New Year festival (Water festival). My brother picked me up at the bus station and we arrived home around 9pm. We saw a nice, big car parked near the house. I joked that I’d love to drive the car and go sightseeing.

I entered the house and changed clothes. After a few minutes there was a knock at the front door. I opened it and found eight military-intelligence officers in front of the house. I was scared, and just looked at the floor, shaking all over, because I knew I was going to be arrested.

The officers forced their way into the house and searched everywhere. They found NLD party symbols and the photo of Suu Kyi and I in my room and told my mother that they were taking me away for interrogation, but they didn’t say where. My father and younger sister weren’t at home. My mother was crying. She said to me, “Take care of yourself and pray to the Lord Buddha for protection.” They tied me up and blindfolded me and pushed me violently into the big car in front of the gate. My brother was furious and asked why they were doing that to me.

Q: Did you say anything to the officers?
I asked them if they had a warrant, but they just said, “Did Suu Kyi teach you to ask such questions?” and laughed at me.

Q: What happened next?
They took me to Intelligence Office 26, which is renowned for being the most cruel interrogation centre. When they uncovered my eyes I saw almost 20 of my friends who were also NLD members. Everyone was grilled separately and asked about the others’ roles in the party. I didn’t tell them anything, but some of the others told them about me. An official brought one of my friends into the room and asked me if he knew him. I said yes, but he denied knowing me. I told the officer I only knew him from university.

My friend insisted that he didn’t know me at all, and I said, “It’s all right if you don’t know who I am, but I know you.” I learned later that he was released because he gave them lots of information about the party’s internal activities. Since then he’s never been involved in the movement. I met him again after I was released. I was never angry with him, and I still talk to him. It wasn’t his fault. Who wanted to be imprisoned?

They interrogated me until 3 or 4am, but I gave them no information. Finally, they called out some names. They released some of my friends, but they covered my eyes again and put me in the car without telling me the destination. I didn’t ask any questions. After an hour the car stopped. I heard the sound of an iron door opening.

One of the officers told me to bow my head down and pushed me forward. I realised that I was already in my cell, because I knew the doorways of cells are lower. They took off the blindfold and I found myself in a cell with many other inmates. Later they took my photo and moved me into solitary confinement. That’s where I stayed until the day I was released.

Q: What crime were you charged with?
No one told me anything. I still don’t know what the charge was.

Q: What do the individual cells look like?
I was in the solitary-confinement zone for female political prisoners. Everyone is afraid of this area because the cells used to be for condemned prisoners. There are 11 cells, each of which can accommodate two or three inmates, but everyone had their own cell. There are three layers of doors, made of steel plate, steel bars and wood. There was a spittoon and a bottle of water in front of the cell door.

Q: How did you feel when you first saw your cell?
When I realised that the one bottle of water was for drinking, cleaning face and sanitary purposes, I asked the guard, “Are you a Buddhist? You should know that we don’t use water from the same bottle to clean our face and for sanitary purposes. Please bring me another one.” She laughed and said this was a prison and I had no right to ask for anything. I was so angry that I threw the bottle across the corridor. The head jailer came in and asked what was going on, then when he was told, he laughed too. But he did give me another bottle of water. I asked for second bottles of water for the other inmates too, and eventually everyone got another bottle.

Q: How did you feel at first, physically and mentally?
I didn’t eat or see the light of day for the first three days. I just drank water. They summoned me many times, day and night, for interrogation. While I was being questioned I had to wear a big hood so that I couldn’t see their faces. I had to sit on a high stool – my feet couldn’t touch the ground and there was no backrest, so my back ached after a while. Mentally I was exhausted, especially from not knowing what I was charged with or how long I would be in prison. I spent my days never knowing what was going to happen tomorrow.

Q: When you eventually ate, how was the food?
On the fourth day I got my first meal, but when I saw the food I cried out loud. It was poor-quality rice with a bean-curry soup and small pieces of smelly fish. The guard asked why I was crying, and I yelled at him, “Do you think we’re animals? Not even a dog would eat this!”

They took me to an office – it was the first time I’d seen their faces – and an officer politely asked me why I didn’t want to eat the food. Another officer brought a tray of delicious-looking food into the room. They said, “This is your food – eat!” I was starving and ready to dive in, but the next sentence was, “Only if you sign your name and answer our questions.” I suddenly lost my appetite, and I told myself I would never answer their questions in exchange for food.

I told them to take me back to my cell. “If the other inmates can eat that food, I will eat it too,” I said. “I am not a special prisoner – and I won’t give you any information.” The polite officer was no longer polite. He yelled at me as he put me back in my cell. I had to force myself to eat the horrible food.

Q: What were the biggest problems in prison?
Clothing and bathing. I only had the clothes I was wearing when I was arrested. After two weeks I was given two prison suits. It was very difficult because we had no cleaning products. We were allowed to use only six bowls of water for bathing and washing our clothes. We took off one suit and put it to soak while we were bathing, and then changed into the other suit. We dried our clothes on the ground. There was no shampoo or soap.

We were allowed to leave the cell twice a day for about five minutes each time. At 9am we went to bathe, and in the afternoon they cleaned the cells. Sometimes in the rainy season the clothes that we left to dry outside got wet when we couldn’t get them inside out of the rain them because it wasn’t our break time. We had to keep wearing the same clothes and wait until the other suit was dry.

Q: Were you ever beaten?
There was one time. I had been in prison for four days and hadn’t eaten yet, and I was exhausted from the repeated questioning. I got really angry when an officer said, “Suu Kyi is a foreigner’s wife – do you want to be like her? None of you are important to this country!” I answered boldly. “Yes, we are not important, but why are you so afraid of us? You arrested us because you afraid of us, right?” He slapped me very hard across the face, and the ring on his finger hurt me so badly that for many days I could barely eat.

Q: Tell us more about how you felt in prison.
I cried in my cell, but quietly because I didn’t want the guards to hear. They would think I was weak and might try again to get information from me. Sometimes I missed my parents so much that I cried and cried. I had no idea how long I would be in prison. I was afraid of the next day because I didn’t know if I would be relocated somewhere else. Some of my friends were released quickly because they signed agreements saying they would stay away from all political activity. I refused to sign.

Q: Did your parents know where you were?
They didn’t know anything for the first three months. Then an intelligence agent in my city told them I was at Insein, but he couldn’t say for how long. He told them they could send me things through his office. They told me later that they often prepared packages for me, but the officer never bothered with them again, even if they waited a whole day. I felt so sorry for my parents because they are old, and of all the items they sent, only a few arrived.

Q: Were you able to communicate to other inmates?
We saw each other while bathing, but we weren’t allowed to talk. There would be three inmates in one bathroom, and if the guard heard us talking he would yell at us to stop. We normally used hand gestures to communicate, such as thumbs up or down to show how we felt. We would move our wrist to encourage one another to be strong. If we heard someone cry out in the night, we’d use our hand signals to encourage each other. When I received snacks from my parents I used a hairpin to scratch a message on the snack bag and passed it on secretly. Sometimes I wrote on the wall because we were always being moved from one to another among the 11 cells, so we could read the messages left by the others.

Q: You were eventually allowed to talk to the other inmates?
After we’d been in jail for six or seven months we started to get acquainted with some of the guards, and we negotiated with them to let us talk and walk together for 10 minutes a day. The guards are actually compassionate people, but they have to do their job to survive. They’re also very poor. I always gave them some of the food my mother sent. The better our relationship and the more we could negotiate.

Q: Did you have visitors from the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC)?
We met with ICRC representatives twice. They gave us a better spittoon, one with a lid, and a new water container, and also some food. But everything went back to normal two days after they left. I showed them some of the real food we were given, which I’d hidden in a plastic bag. The guards were very angry with me over that.

Q: Did you have any health problems?
My main problems were skin rashes and stomach ailments, because we didn’t have proper hygiene and the nutrition was bad. We always had stomach gas because we couldn’t walk after meals. I was hospitalised in prison because of very bad stomach aches. I couldn’t even walk. The doctor gave me injections, but I was afraid of HIV infection. Many inmates were infected by treatments at the prison hospital since so many of the others had been drug users and sex workers. I was worried the doctors wouldn’t use a clean needle on me.

Q: To what extent did you become discouraged?
I was confused. Five months after I was jailed the universities opened again, after having been closed for four years. The guard told me and asked if I wanted to return to classes. I only had to sign a paper swearing I would never participate in any political activity again.

I really missed my classes. Studying at university was my dream. If the university hadn’t been closed in the first place I wouldn’t have to be in prison. I also fretted because I had been my parents’ only hope – their first child to go to university. They’re almost 70 now. But I couldn’t lie to myself. I couldn’t just ignore the political situation. If I couldn’t do anything out there, I preferred to be in prison.

Prison was cruel, but I worried about my friends there. When I heard them crying or losing their minds, I realised that I could never give up, and I just wanted to keep fighting for political change. If I signed the paper to get back to class and then the university was closed again, I would have no place to study anyway, and there was no guarantee that the university would remain open.

Q: How did you regain your freedom?
I was released in January 2001, with no advance notice. I still didn’t know what charges had got me arrested in the first place. One morning the guard brought me some Tanakha powder and soap that my parents had sent. He told me and a friend to pack and go to the office, where we found a lot of the male inmates from solitary confinement. Our photos were taken again and we were told we would be released that day, but they didn’t tell us why. They just emphasised that we were not to give any information about the prison to people outside.

They gave me a mattress and mosquito net that my parents had sent but I’d never received. The mattress smelled of liquor and cigarettes – the guards had used it. I was taken to Intelligence Office Unit 26 for a final briefing, and then taken home.

Q: Did your family know you were being released?
No. When I arrived home my mother was cooking some food to send me in prison. I tottered into the house because I hadn’t walked so much in such a long time. My eyesight was blurred because I couldn’t take the sunlight. My nose was unfamiliar with the fresh air. Only my mother and sister were home. When my mother saw me she called out my name and cried. I’d become just skin and bones and I was covered in sores.

Q: What happened next?
I thought I would have a good appetite, but I was wrong. My stomach couldn’t take anything in because I hadn’t eaten any good food in such a long time. I had a hard time getting to sleep on a soft mattress – I was used to sleeping on the cement floor. If I opened my eyes and looked up, I saw only the ceiling of my cell. I kept waking up, thinking that I was still in prison. The first six months I only wanted to stay in my bedroom. I didn’t want to see anyone. I don’t know why. My appetite was poor and I jumped every time someone made a noise. I’m still the same today.

I think of others who were imprisoned a long time, such as Min Ko Naing, the former student activist leader who spent 17 years in jail [and was rearrested on September 27, 2006]. Or Khun Htun Oo, the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), who was sentenced to 100 years in prison. They would be facing far more serious difficulties than I did. I was only 11 months in prison, and I felt horrible because of it.

Q: What effects have the ordeal had on your life?
My neighbours don’t let their children talk to me, even though they had been my close friends, because they consider me a jailbird. Some of my relatives don’t want me to visit them because they don’t want to be seen as supporting the political movement.

But my family understands and accepts me completely. My first night at home, my parents told me they were still worried and they didn’t want me to get politically involved again. The next morning I asked for their permission to go to the NLD office to let them know I’d been released. They watched me leave with worried eyes, but I can’t just ignore what’s going on and do nothing, because the situation hasn’t changed.

Q: What’s happening in your life now?
I went to my university and tried to get back in, but they wanted me to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t participate in political activities. I refused and missed out on another whole year. The following year there was no obligation to sign an agreement, and I was able to continue my studies. I earned my degree in chemistry in 2003. Since graduating, though, I’ve become interested in journalism, and I applied for a reporter’s job at a newspaper in Rangoon. I’ve had training with two international non-profit organisations.

Q:Why do you want to be a reporter?
I want to know the facts and share them with the public. The obstacle is censorship and suppression. I’m now working as a reporter for a Burmese-language radio station in Thailand. We broadcast health information and have the support of foreign media groups. This is how I’m helping my people right now.

Q: Do you want to return to your hometown?
Sometimes I feel that I’ve been selfish by leaving my country, but I think I might be arrested again if I’m in Burma and wouldn’t get a second chance this time. Military-intelligence officers always stop at my house and ask my parents where I am. If Burma became a democratic country tomorrow, I’d return home immediately. I want to work for the people in my country and I want to live with my parents, but I have to live in another country for now and save my life for that day.

(Salween Post Magazine Vol. 33)


nwe said...

I am really sorry to hear your story in prison but at the same time I am proud of you. You are really a tough girl

Ma Nwe

Anonymous said...

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ကုိယ့္ဟာကုိယ္ ဘာသာၿပန္ရင္ တလြဲေတြၿဖစ္ကုန္မယ္ဗ်ဟီး

ေကာင္းကင္ကို said...

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အိိမ္လြမ္းသူ said...

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