Student activist, Saw Thet Thun was arrested twice – in 1991 and 1999 – spending nearly 20 years in prison, he was released in 2007.
Saw Thet Thun recalls some of the horrors he and fellow prisoners faced in those years. “The biggest hardship was being tortured. The prison authorities would treat us as less than human, like dogs. They beat us, transferred us far away from our families and would not let us read or write.”
Now working at Burma’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Rangoon, which was founded in 2000, Saw Thet Thun helps ex-political prisoners get back on their feet.
A key aspect of AAPP’s assistance programs is a counseling service for torture victims. Established in 2013 with just 10 counselors, the program now has 24 counselors and treats more than 300 people in Yangon and Mandalay.
Many former political prisoners, having faced torture and abuse at the hands of prison authorities while being locked away in one of the country’s notorious prisons, were haunted by their experiences. Saw Thet said this had left the country deeply scarred. “Our society has been traumatized by 50 years of military rule so we need counseling mechanisms and support services for our people.”
With the assistance of John Hopkins University, and with funding from the United States government, the AAPP is looking to expand the program to all victims of torture, not just ex-prisoners.
“Our focus is to counsel victims of torture. Until now we could only assist former political prisoners and their family members. Now we will focus on victims of torture. We also want to assist their families. For example, what if your daughter/son/spouse was a victim of torture? You would feel terrible. They need support too.”
Khin Nyein Chan Soe, is a co-supervisor of the counselling program. She said that counseling was a new concept in Burma.
“Many people are suspicious about counseling – it is a very new concept for our country. Often those being counseled won’t even tell their families or they often say ‘we are strong, we don’t need counseling, we are not crazy.’ But they don’t realise that they are traumatized – and that this is affecting their life.”
Khin Nyein Chan Soe said that AAPP counselors were dealing with severe cases of psychological trauma. “Sometimes they don’t want to talk to anyone, or go out of their house – they are severely traumatized. Most of them have been tortured by Military Intelligence. They experienced beatings in interrogation centres, were not allowed to eat or sleep for as long as one week, some were forced to drink toilet water and were threatened with being killed.”
Khin Nyein Chan Soe said that AAPP staff had seen marked improvements in their clients following the 12-week counseling program.
“At first, some clients can’t even talk about their experiences – daily life can be very hard for them. They can suffer panic attacks and nightmares. But after the 12 weeks the clients have reported improved sleeping, feeling calmer, and not as depressed. If there are continued issues the we can refer them to a psychiatric team who can provide them with medication.”
The AAPP maintained that the counseling program was especially important now because Burma’s reformist government, led by President U Thein Sein, was still arresting activists.
International human rights organizations also continue to document the imprisonment of political activists, in spite of promises by President Thein Sein that all political prisoners would be released by 2013. The government maintains that those arrested are criminals, not political activists.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said that Burma’s government was misusing criminal laws to jail political activists. “We’re very concerned that Burma’s authorities are charging activist critics willy-nilly, with whatever provisions of the penal code that they think they can fit to the situation. This is deepening the lack of rule of law crisis that is engulfing Burma, as politically and economically powerful persons use the law as they like to silence anyone who criticizes them,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview with Karen News last month.
Mr. Robertson said the situation was reminiscent of the clampdowns seen under Burma’s previous military regime. “The problem is government officials and the police frequently press politically trumped up charges to arrest activists, and they get away with it because of Burma’s politically compliant judiciary which is still acting like it did under the days of military administration,” Mr. Robertson said.
AAPP estimated that there were at least 70 political activists in prisons across the country, with as many as a further 200 awaiting sentencing.
The laws most used against activists are articles 18, 19, 427 and 447 of the penal code, AAPP said. Article 18 and 19 require all protests be granted permission by authorities before they can proceed. Officials often refuse permission for peaceful protests, however, and activists, frustrated by multiple rebuttals, occasionally go ahead with a protest. Those that do so risk a one-year prison sentence and a comparatively large 30,000 Kyatt fine ($3,000).
Articles 427 and 447 cover trespassing and vandalism, and have also been used to imprison journalists, including Zaw Pe, a journalist at Democratic Voice of Burma, who was arrested and sentenced in April this year to one year in prison after ‘disturbing a civil servant’ while investigating a corruption story.
HRW notes that Burma’s government has arrested at least eight journalists since December 2013.
Saw Thet Thun said that because of the ongoing arrests, the AAPP could not rely on the government for support. “The government should take responsibility for this. But we cannot wait or rely on the government.” He added that the program had struck a chord in the community. “Our ambition is to have a nationwide counseling service. Former political prisoners are asking me – we are in Mon State, Rakhine State, and Karen State, saying to us that ‘we want counseling too.’ Right now, they have no avenue to share their feelings they have no one to speak to.”
The two-year program, which is currently set to finish in 2015 depending on funding, could expand into the country’s prison system if only the government gave permission, Saw Thet Thun said.
“Now we have funding, we have technical support, we have the counsellors but the main problem is the government. They do not want us to go into the prisons. Technically this is a ‘illegal’ program because the government does not recognize the AAPP. They could arrest us anytime.”
Htin Aung, a supervisor of the counseling program, spoke of how the AAPP counselors had a special insight into the traumas suffered by victims of torture, having faced it themselves as former political prisoners. “We are ex-prisoners, we can understand very well about life in prison.”
Khin Nyein Chan Soe, the daughter of a former political prisoner, also felt a connection with her clients.
“One of the most important things is that we can share our personal experiences with our clients and relate with them. We are former political prisoners ourselves or our family members were. My father was in prison for 27 years. We want them to have hope.”