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Myanmar’s jails are poisonous

From the #IFJBlog

Journalist Hla Lay Thu Zar’s coverage of protests against Myanmar’s 2021 military coup resulted in a three-year jail sentence. Now released from jail, she’s determined to use her reporting to highlight the military regime’s human rights violations of political prisoners, writes Phil Thornton.

Hla Lay Thu Zar doesn’t hold back when she explains her time served in Myanmar’s notorious jails as a political prisoner: “There’s nothing good that could be said about being in jail – it’s poisonous. Myanmar’s prisons are run by people who don’t understand or care what human rights are.”

Since the military staged a coup to wrench control of Myanmar from its elected government on February 1, 2021, it has locked up tens of thousands of people for protesting – elected politicians, health workers, teachers, civil servants, artists, musicians, students, workers, and journalists.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) estimates, that the military regime has killed at least 5,063 people and arrested another 26,683, including 5,457 women (as of May 15, 2024). Of those arrested, 170 were journalists with 47 currently serving jail sentences, and another five journalists killed by the military.

Bo Kyi, the co-founder and spokesperson of the AAPP, said that 166 people have been sentenced to death and four have been executed. The AAPP documents another 1,800 people killed who have yet to be identified and verified. 

Bo Kyi said arresting, torturing, beating, jailing, and killing people for their political opposition is sent as a stark warning that no one in Myanmar is safe from the military.

In the weeks after the coup, the military regime, ignoring international law, reworked and amended legislation to allow it to frame and jail its opponents – health workers, parliamentarians, students, academics, lawyers, public servants, workers, and journalists.

The wide spectrum of amended laws – treason, sedition, illegal association, terrorism, explosives – have been used to hand out more than 20-year jail sentences, including using the death penalty, against people opposed to military rule.

Bo Kyi explained that the amended laws are nothing more than a veneer of legality to cover the regime’s ongoing violence against the country’s civilians.

“The [regime] uses these laws to intimidate people. They do this to create a climate of fear – ‘you will be tortured…even sentenced to death’. This is a warning to the rest of society. [It] denies there are any political prisoners. If arrested you are classified as a criminal…worse than a criminal…you’re seen as against them – to be beaten and tortured and denied any rights. Political prisoners have broken no laws. They should not be in jail, and if jailed they should be kept separate from the criminal population,” added Bo Kyi.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) ranked Myanmar as the world’s second-highest jailers of journalists in its annual Killed List, citing the military’s recent jailing and killing of journalists and media workers.

Fear of attacks, harassment, intimidation, censorship, detainment, and assassination for their reporting has driven journalists and media workers underground or to try to reach relative safety in neighbouring countries.

Hla Lay’s reporting of anti-coup protests was judged unlawful, by the military regime’s vague legal definitions, and she was charged on May 1, 2021, under section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which was specifically amended to silence critics.

Two weeks into the coup, the military sponsored media outlet, the Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), published the amendments in its February 15th edition, signalling the military’s intent to strangle and criminalize freedom of speech, expression, and association.

The intention of Section 124(A); as published in the GNLM is clear; it states in part: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt… and Section 505-A: cause fear, spread false news, agitate directly or indirectly criminal offence against a Government employee…”

Hla Lay’s “crime” was to livestream the anti-coup protests, which showed the police and army’s brutal response, including the use of live ammunition, and the shooting and battering of unarmed protesters.

Hla Lay explains that as a journalist the coup was not a story she was prepared to miss.

“It was a massive story… an important story. People were angry and protested in their millions against the military’s theft of democracy,” she said.

Hla Lay admits her reporting was the beginning of a career-high.

“It was an exciting story. I couldn’t stop covering it. I reported on the shootings, arrests and beatings of protesters by soldiers and police. I was out on the streets doing this two, or three times a week,” she added.

I’m meeting with Hla Lay and other recently released political prisoners in a small Burmese-styled tea house near the Thai-Myanmar border.

Zu May and San Dar Thwin join Hla Lay at the table. All three women are former political prisoners jailed under Section 505(A). Hla Lay got out of jail in January 2023. Zu May and San Dar Thwin were released five months later on May 3, 2023.

Hla Lay looks around the cluttered teahouse, moves plates and leans in as she describes what led to her eventual arrest, detention, interrogation, and 15 months in Myanmar’s notorious Insein Prison.

“I kept working during the coup – livestreaming the protests. In the beginning, the atmosphere had a party feel, but it soon changed. March 11, was a bad day. There were reports of shootings in North Dagon [Yangon]. A protester, Chit Min Thu, was shot by a sniper in the head. When I got there his body was gone, but I could see the bloodline where they dragged him away.”

Despite the military’s deadly use of live ammunition at the street demonstrations, Hla Lay explained why she continued to work as a freelance photojournalist, to cover the protests, and why she continued to livestream the military’s abuses.

“The military coup made me feel my life goals…my hopes for the future were disappearing. Knowing that my young daughter’s future was at stake made it worse. I’ve spent my career reporting about human rights violations – now the coup felt like mine – everyone’s rights – were about to be taken from us. I made the decision to expose and report the human rights violations by the military.”

After her arrest warrant was issued, Hla Lay had been in hiding for four months when police and military tracked her down on Sept. 1, 2021.

“I was caught at a busy junction…they came in four vehicles…plainclothes men with guns surrounded me. I was blindfolded and taken to Yar Kyi 1 Interrogation Centre. They wanted me to give names, activists, journalists, they beat me with a rattan cane. I could feel that’s all they wanted to do – beat me. When I did answer their questions, they still beat me.”

Hla Lay believes jail and torture are used to disempower and dehumanise political prisoners. Bo Kyi from AAPP agrees with Hla Lay.

“Women prisoners are subjected to sexual abuse when returning from their court hearings back to the jail. Full body searches…this is done to dehumanise them. Female and male guards force full body searches – anal and vagina. This is not new, it’s always about how they can dehumanize the political prisoners,” said Bo Kyi

Bo Kyi added that Myanmar’s prisons and labour camps’ have a notorious reputation for torture, corruption, lack of healthcare – disease and injuries are left untreated – overcrowding and poor sanitation all make sentences hell for political prisoners.

Hla Lay agrees with Bo Kyi and added that it’s the support from other political prisoners that is critical to surviving the harsh prison conditions.

“The worst time in jail is all the time…there’s no good time. Political prisoners are treated like slaves and prison guards regard themselves as our masters. The living conditions are really bad. Food is so bad you would not feed it to animals. Medicine and health care are non-existent, but we work together to support each other,” said Hla Lay.

She voiced concern for a media colleague recently handed an additional 10 years with hard labour for breaching Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism law.

“She was already serving three years for defamation. It’s crazy, she did nothing illegal,” exclaimed Hla Lay.

Hmu Yandanar Khet Moh Moh Tun was run down by a military vehicle when covering a street protest on Dec. 5, 2021. Video footage clearly shows the military pick-up travelling at high speed towards the back of a line of protesters and ramming into and through them.

As a journalist, Hmu Yandanar was filming the protest. She was seriously hurt after being run over by the truck’s wheels, resulting in severe injuries to her head, legs and arms.

Her Myanmar Photo Agency (MPA) colleague, Kaung Sett Lin’s, legs were broken. Both journalists were arrested and received three-year jail sentences.

Kaung Sett Lin was released from jail in January. He confirmed the seriousness of Hmu Yadanar’s injuries when interviewed by VOA.

“Her whole body and her legs were completely crushed,” he said.

Hmu Yadanar was sentenced in May 2023 to an additional 10 years with hard labour for breaches of the counter-terrorism laws, increasing her sentence to 13 years.

Kaung Sett Linn told VOA that Hmu Yandanar’s extra 10-year sentence was motivated by hiding the extent of her injuries from international scrutiny.

“They lied about the case and unjustly sentenced her to a longer prison term. I think the [regime] did not want the public to see the disfigured face of Hmu Yandanar because of the injuries they inflicted on her,” he added.

Hla Lay met Hmu Yandanar in the prison hospital and confirmed her severe injuries.

“She lives there, but to call it a hospital is a lie. It’s just a bed in a dormitory. She is living on her own. She has to use crutches. Even going to the toilet with her injuries is difficult. She doesn’t get any help from the prison hospital staff. She is strong. Her medical treatment is ineffective. There’s no medicine. The hospital is just a storage room. It’s like she is having to heal her own wounds,” said Hla Lay.

In recent weeks Zu May, Hla Lay and San Dar Thwin together with other women political prisoners formed the Women’s Organisation of Political Prisoners.

Zu May explains that the organization aims to advocate for the release of political prisoners and to support those who have been released and those still in jail.

“We will fight for political prisoners to have their rights acknowledged and given. We will protect and take effective action against sexual violence perpetrators, and we will continue to find ways to keep helping former political prisoners and their families,” said Zu May.


Phil Thornton is a journalist and senior adviser to the International Federation of Journalists in South East Asia.

*This story has been edited for brevity.

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