Violations of basic rights in prisons nationwide are on the rise since an army officer was named by the junta as director-general of the country’s Prison Department two months ago, Myanmar Now has learned.
On July 12, Myo Swe, who is believed to have served at or above the rank of colonel, was appointed on a probationary basis to the department’s top position, which operates under the home affairs ministry. Some 20 other officers, all ranked as captains, were also assigned to positions at the lower, supervisory level at that time.
Myanmar Now recently spoke to several relatives of political prisoners currently being held in Insein Prison in Yangon; Myingyan and Obo in Mandalay; Bago, Thayawaddy and Taungoo in Bago; Dawei in Tanintharyi; Thayet in Magway; and Monywa in Sagaing Region. The sources said that under Myo Swe’s leadership, new restrictions on inmates had been introduced, particularly concerning food and communications.
A woman providing for two family members in junta prisons explained that in order to bring necessary supplies to her incarcerated relatives, she is now required to show original household registration forms and identification cards.
“We used to only need copies of those documents, but we need the originals now. It only started this year,” she said.
While she once had been allowed to bring an unlimited amount of fruit to the prisoners, starting on September 6, only one kind of fruit was permitted to be delivered, she noted. Instant noodle pack allowances have also been reduced from 10 to five, as well as instant coffee, from 30 to 15 packs.
Prisoners are also no longer allowed to send letters outside, the woman said.
“I heard that he wrote a letter before he received his sentencing but we still haven’t gotten to read it,” she told Myanmar Now of one of her detained relatives.
An officer with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) confirmed that “for around two months now” prisoners have not been permitted to send written communications to their family members.
“Prisoners used to be able to write letters to their families outside with the permission of the prison superintendent,” the officer said. “They’re torturing not just the political prisoners but also their family members. Just think about how they would feel not being able to see their loved ones for a long time all the while not knowing what’s happening to them. There are no words to describe their pain and worry.”
The officer added that this restriction is unprecedented, even under previous repressive military regimes headed by generals Ne Win and Than Shwe.
A Hla Lay Thuzar, a journalist who was released from Insein Prison in January after serving 16 months, explained that food packages from family members were necessary for her survival during her incarceration. She recalled how prison meals rotated between two eggs or chicken once a week, and fish or a sour soup each twice a week.
“The eggs were sub-standard and many people couldn’t even eat the fish curries. The chicken curries also contained feathers,” she said. “The food provided by the prison is so bad that nobody could actually eat it. The prisoners can’t also tell their families what they need for food as they’re not allowed to meet them in person. They have to eat whatever their families send. Even so, many of the care packages didn’t arrive and they had to starve.”
Myanmar Now’s conversations with relatives of inmates in prisons in Bago and Mandalay confirmed that food parcels were being restricted there, as well.
In Myingyan Prison, prisoners are only allowed to receive a maximum of 800g of three types of fried dishes in parcels from their families, according to the mother of one of one political detainee.
She used to send her son 3-4 kg of fried peanuts and dried beef during each visit, but noted that it was “not possible anymore” and that she would not be able to make more frequent trips due to the time and expense involved.
“I’m from Mandalay, so I can’t go to the prison every two weeks,” she said, referring to the more than 100 km distance between the locations, a journey that costs 30,000 to 50,000 kyat (US$14-24) each time.
Myanmar Now previously reported how authorities in Myingyan Prison had been accused of beating inmates and putting them in solitary confinement for allegedly hiding and using mobile phones. More than 800 political detainees are incarcerated at the site, including Dr Myint Naing, the ousted chief minister of Sagaing Region.
A 40-year-old political prisoner recently released from Bago Prison said that inmates were restricted to receiving two fried dishes, seven packs of coffee mix sachets, three uniforms, four blankets—since no mattress was provided—and a bucket to serve as their toilet.
“They used to have no limits on these things in the past but everything changed after they started searching prisoners for mobile phones in late August,” he told Myanmar Now.
The aforementioned AAPP officer commented that it was not a coincidence that the military council had imposed new restrictions on prisons nationwide.
“They’re doing it on purpose. They’re appointing military officers as prison authorities in order to oppress [the prisoners] further. It’s a very clear tactic,” he said.
As of early September, there were more than 24,000 political detainees in prisons across Myanmar, according to AAPP.