by Min Zin
Posted June 29, 2008
Much has been written about Cyclone Nargis and the failure of Burma’s military junta to respond adequately. But what of the hundreds of political prisoners held in Burma, many in areas devastated by the storm? When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma in the late night hours of May 2, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein prison, where hundreds of political prisoners (including my brother) are locked up, was one of the hardest hit places in Rangoon.
Why is my brother in Insein? On Feb. 15, the military raided the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal’s editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a U.N. report on the military’s brutal crackdown on last September’s demonstrations by monks and democracy activists—known around the world as the “Saffron Revolution.”
My brother’s name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country—whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the Internet—under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested.
When Cyclone Nargis hit, it uprooted trees; rain flooded the prison cells and the power was cut. A fire broke out in one of the prison wards, filling the prison with smoke. The flames triggered a riot. The guards started shooting.
Suffering from asthma, my brother was choking with smoke. His former office manager and fellow inmate, Sein Win Maung, passed out. Some sympathetic prison guards rushed to the cells and managed to push aside fallen trees and move the political prisoners to a prison hospital.
“Many political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue was delayed one more hour,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who now works with Thailand-based Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP-Burma).
It is still hard to know how many died or were injured during the havoc. But according to AAPP at least 36 prisoners at Insein were shot to death when the cylcone hit. Some prisoners, like many of their countrymen, lost their entire family to the cyclone. Thiha Thet Zin, a political prisoner in Insein, was informed that eight out of nine of his family members—including his son, his parents, his grandmother, and all his siblings—were swept away by the storm. His wife was the only survivor.
This is hell on earth. Still, Insein prison and the injustices that take place there are but a microcosm of what’s taking place throughout Burma. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all of Burma is a prison.
Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 138,000 lives and left millions homeless. Still, the junta denied millions of Burmese people the basic right to food by blocking foreign aid workers and supplies in the weeks immediately following the storm.
Indeed, the misuse of international aid is by now well documented. Aid supplies ended up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police officers and members of pro-government civilian groups instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors. Soldiers even looted jewelries from dead bodies.
Moreover, the junta forced survivors to take part in the reconstruction of military sites and conscripted male orphans into the army, which before the storm was already notorious for its tens of thousands of child soldiers. All of these reports have been confirmed by sources both inside and outside Burma.
Clearly, the junta’s inability and unwillingness to care for the Burmese people is tantamount to “crimes against humanity.” Cyclone Nargis has exposed the failures of the regime and brought forth a defining moment in Burmese history with inevitable, if yet unpredictable, political consequences.
“Things will not return to status quo ante,” says Priscilla Clapp, a U.S. diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002. Post-cyclone Burmese politics will be a humanitarian politics—pressuring and arguing about mobilizing aid and its delivery. Political goals will be set aside at least for the medium-term, and more consideration will be given to humanitarian works.
The junta continues to ensure that the cyclone will not have an effect on its “Road Map to discipline flourishing democracy.” But there are pressures within the junta itself that could eventually lead to change. “We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military,” said David Steinberg, a Burma expert from Georgetown University. “But I don’t know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is at a high enough level to threaten present leadership.”
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has approved millions in aid for Burma and now has hundreds of aid workers from member countries in storm-stricken areas. This could serve to expose to the outside world the prison state that is Burma. Still, despite a visit last month by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the demands of dozens of heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s opposition Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest—long after the May 24 deadline for her release.
What’s most important here is to assure the aid money is not used by the junta to retrench and tighten its grip on the Burmese people. Foreign aid runs the risk of being a “jackpot for the military junta, who will be the sole beneficiary of the international donation in the name of the cyclone victims” says Aung Din, a former political prisoner and director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
The outside world must demand more transparency and accountability when it comes to aid money and how it is distributed. So long as the world allows itself to be co-opted and outfoxed by the junta, political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi and those in cyclone-ravaged Insein prison—will continue to languish in Burma’s gulags, and the Burmese people will remain shackled.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.
by Min Zin