Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Activists report dire state of Myanmar’s prison system

Tuberculosis, cholera and dysentery are just some of the more common ailments plaguing inmates at Myanmar’s putrid penitentiaries.

An officer stands guard outside Insein Prison in Yangon on June 27. Photo: AFPAn officer stands guard outside Insein Prison in Yangon on June 27. Photo: AFP

While the country may be charting a rapid course of reform, behind the high walls and iron bars of the prison system positive change has proceeded at a more sluggish pace. Thousands of prisoners continue to be kept in grueling conditions where mistreatment and exploitation are still the norm, according to an activist group.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) released a study into Myanmar prisons on September 25 that painted a grim picture.

“[Prisons here] are hidden from the public eye and prisoners are shown little sympathy by the general public,” the report said.

“This creates an environment of increased impunity, which in turn leads to the violation of basic human rights for many individuals.”

Part of this was blamed on woefully outdated and rarely enforced regulations. The Prisons Act, also known as the India Act of 1894, is still in use today. This is complimented by the so-called Jail Manual which was last revised in 1950.

According to a 2015 report by the US State Department, there were 60,000 individuals held in approximately 43 prisons and 50 labour camps around Myanmar.

Basic health conditions in many of these facilities were described by the AAPP report as “abysmal”.

“Prisoners are plagued by a large number of different illnesses, including heart disease, malaria, high blood pressure and tuberculosis … Dysentery and scabies [are] considered a fairly normal condition in prison,” the report said.

Malnutrition was also a major concern with a number of prisoners “living on the brink of starvation”.

Sanitation is often so substandard that in some facilities sewage containers overflow with excrement on a regular basis.

The report cited one example from Sittwe Prison, where water wells and sewage holes are so close to one another that during the rainy season sewage mixes with the drinking water, causing cholera outbreaks and prisoner deaths.

Overcrowding was also described as “pervasive”.

Behind the walls of Insein

Site visits by a Myanmar National Human Rights Commission investigation team earlier this year revealed severe overcrowding in Hktami Prison in Sagaing Region, where 688 prisoners were held despite its 300-person capacity. Another visit, to Loikaw Prison in Kayah State found 518 inmates held despite a 409 person capacity.

On top of this, the prisons systematically torture inmates, according to the AAPP. Torture is employed “not only as a means of extracting information and false confessions, but also to punish, degrade and humiliate detainees”.

The AAPP claimed thousands of prisoners are forced in to labour while serving their sentence, sometimes in prison labour camps, and other times at the battlefront as porters.

In the prison labour camps, food, clothing and medical supplies are reportedly very limited, making these facilities “harsh and life threatening”.

AAPP joint secretary U Bo Kyi told The Myanmar Times that the prison system in this country falls “far short of international standards”.

He said that overcrowding was the most urgent problem to fix, as many health and nutrition issues stem from the sheer number of people locked up together.

However, U Bo Kyi also sounded a note of optimism. “I see positive signs for prison reform because many former political prisoners are now in parliament and holding government positions – they know just how bad the prison situation is,” he said.

The report made several recommendations to the new government, including reviewing all legislation pertaining to the prison sector in order to bring it in line with international standards, ratifying relevant international conventions and ensuring all prison staff are adequately trained, especially in human rights and the use of force.

But it also acknowledged that comprehensive reform will be difficult due to “a lack of funding and institutional barriers posed by the continuing control of key ministries by the military”.

Lawyer U Robert Sann Aung said that as the first step of reform, the government needs to remove the Prisons Department from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs and shirt it to a newly created Ministry of Justice. The military has “used the prisons to oppress … since General Nay Win’s administration,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ye Mon Tun