Mon 2 Jul 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma
Yangon – It’s been six months since activist Aung Min Naing was freed from jail in Myanmar under a mass amnesty of political prisoners which prompted scenes of wild jubilation. But life since then has been far from easy.The 24-year-old still doesn’t have anywhere to call home. He has no job and few options for resuming his studies. “I don’t have a fixed abode. I just sleep wherever is convenient,” he said.
Many fellow ex-prisoners face similar troubles, Aung Min Naing told AlertNet. Like other released activists, he is also wary of the new reformist government that has replaced Myanmar’s notorious military junta.
Aung Min Naing was freed with hundreds of other activists in January in the fourth such amnesty under the quasi-civilian government which took power in March 2011.
But the euphoria surrounding their release now seems a distant memory as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
Unlike the cases of such household names as Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi or student leader Min Ko Naing, the plight of these former political prisoners is barely documented.
Tainted by their political beliefs and stint in jail, they cannot find employment or continue their studies. Many are denied passports and barred from travelling abroad.
Hundreds of former political prisoners are also in poor health after enduring horrific conditions in prison.
Some have heart and lung problems or have lost full use of their legs after being cooped up in tiny cells. Others have contracted tuberculosis while living in overcrowded jails. Some have even been infected with hepatitis or HIV while being treated at unhygienic prison hospitals.
However, former political prisoners receive little, if any, systematic assistance, said Arkar Boh, a 29-year-old former medical student who was arrested in 2008 while attempting to form an association which was deemed illegal.
“I wonder whether people have forgotten about them or are ignoring them. Everyone seem to be putting all their efforts on moving forward and not on helping to rebuild these lives,” he added.
Aung Min Naing was arrested in August 2007 while protesting against massive price rises in Myanmar, a country where a third of the 60 million-strong population live on less than $1.25 a day.
“When I started getting involved in politics, my sister kicked me out and told me not to darken her door again,” said the former student who was sentenced to 12 and a half years.
His family still hasn’t welcomed him back.
His friend Thant Zin Tun, a former computer studies undergraduate from central Myanmar, also has no home and is sleeping at another former prisoner’s house.
“The majority of former political prisoners, unless they are well-known or have well-off families, are facing a lot of problems,” he said. “Many have had to sell assets and have no means of income.”
The university expelled him after his brief arrest in 2006 for saluting the bronze statue of Aung San, the nation’s founding father. He was arrested again in 2011 for trying to form a student group. Since his release in January he has appealed to the university to let him continue his studies but has not heard back.
Neither of the men has any income apart from some support from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, where they are both members of the youth wing.
Most former prisoners AlertNet interviewed were barely out of their teens when they were thrown inside Myanmar’s infamous jails.
They were placed in solitary confinement in cells measuring eight feet by eight with bare concrete floors save for a basic bamboo bed. There were no pillows and no toilets. Some were incarcerated in cells normally used for prison dogs.
“We slept in the room, we ate in the room and we did our other business in the room also,” said Thant Zin Tun, who was in Yangon’s Insein prison.
The activists AlertNet spoke to remain committed to the democratic cause and hopeful about some of the rapid changes happening in their country following 50 years of iron-fisted military rule.
President Thein Sein, a former general, has surprised the world with his appetite for reforms – not only releasing political prisoners, but also easing media censorship and signing peace agreements with ethnic rebels.
However, activists are sceptical about the government’s sincerity and wary of Thein Sein, who was prime minister under the junta.
They point out that many dissidents, including some who are gravely ill, remain in jail in appalling conditions.
Another former political prisoner, Phone Pyae Kywe, said abuses were continuing under the new government.
“They haven’t released all prisoners. There is still no rule of law at the ground level, it’s only on the surface,” said the 23-year-old who was released before the amnesties.
“Based on their past conduct, I don’t think the government is politically honest so I wonder whether the reforms are genuine too,” he added.
But Phone Pyae Kywe is still willing to take a leap of faith.
“The country has been drowning in a swamp for a long time, in fact my whole life,” he added. “So now is the time to accelerate the reforms. We can’t slow down.”