A number of political prisoners on hunger strike in Rangoon’s Insein prison have reportedly been moved to solitary confinement as wardens try to break the protest, now in its second week.
Five female inmates began refusing food on 17 May, a day after Burmese authorities announced a highly criticised amnesty that saw nearly 17,000 people released from jail early, but only 50 of whom were political prisoners.
The five were joined by 22 male political prisoners on 22 May before authorities sought to isolate them. A source close to Insein prison, which houses around 10,000 inmates in cramped conditions, said it was not clear how many were put in solitary confinement.
Tate Naing, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPPB), said that the demands made by strikers for better prison conditions were “within the boundaries of prison regulations” and so “authorities will have to comply with them somehow”.
Abuse of inmates in Burma’s 43 prisons is common, with guards known for meting out heavy punishments against those who demand better living conditions. Tate Naing, who himself spent four years in prison in Burma, said that officials would use various tactics to break the strike.
“In September 1990, almost every inmate in the Insein prison staged a hunger strike and authorities isolated the participants from each other,” he said. “They began spreading rumours such as who’s eating again and who had died of hunger, systemically causing outrage among prisoners and leading them to riot.”
Prisoners were then beaten for rioting and further punished. The current strikers risked similar retribution, he said, adding that “participants may die if they are unlucky” and that authorities could well struggle to handle the situation.
Four political prisoners in the remote Kale jail last week sent a letter to Burma’s home affairs minister, U Ko Ko, in which they claimed they are being denied adequate healthcare, food and the freedom to communicate with their families.
Among the four is Ashin Gambira, who is serving a 63-year sentence for his pivotal role in the September 2007 uprising, and Nyi Pu, an MP-elect from 1990 polls who was sentenced to 15 years.