According to Ma Khine, the criminal charges of falsifying documents relating to legal ownership of a hotel and surrounding property issued against her and her husband were politically motivated. She recalls the presence of the Minister for Hotels and Tourism General Kyaw Ba at the signing ceremony along with other members of the regime.
The case took a great toll on her family, particularly her father who has become more withdrawn in recent years. “He used to listen to Radio Free America (RFA), but stopped in 2006. He fell into depression and just stayed in his room. When I saw him in early 2009, he just smiled at me without speaking,” she tells me. Years of constant military surveillance have contributed to his condition.
For all of their distrust of the outside world and their former colonial rules, Burma’s laws are based on the British system. The junta still implements some of the harshest left over from the colonial era. There is one in particular that Ma Khine speaks of that was practised while she was in prison. She refers to it as the water punishment.
Each inmate was ordered to retrieve water in a small plastic cup four times a day for washing and drinking. Inmate leaders on friendly terms with prison staff stood on a ladder overlooking a water baya (tank) six feet high, barking orders when inmates could scoop the water, wash themselves and then move away.
“Anyone who took too long would be struck with a bamboo cane across the arms and legs,” she recalls. All skin lacerations and scars went untreated.
‘There were no bandages, no medicine, so many people developed skin diseases that went untreated. This will never heal,” Ma Khine says as she shows me a deep red scar and skin that looks like it is ready to bubble. The Thailand-based NGO Affiliation Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported in 2009 that prison officials regularly turned a blind eye to anything that occurred, while at the same time stealing medicine donated to improve prison conditions and selling poorer medicine back to prisoners.
In 2009, a report titled “Burma’s Prisons and Labour Camps: Silent Killing Fields” by the AAPP revealed that Insein Prison had up to three doctors to deal with serious conditions amongst the estimated 10,000 inmates. Doctors and nurses were only available to please global bodies who conducted visits as part of standard reporting procedures.
“The medical staff never did anything for us. They were on standby when members of the World Health Organisation completed their visits. Every prisoner received uniforms and fresh bandages. Their representatives would record that doctors and nurses were present, she says, but doctors and nurses never actually saw or treated us, ever,” she says.
The former Insein Prison inmate also singled out the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) as being gullible to the regime’s window dressing. Her greatest concern regarding the ICRC’s conduct was expressed at the organisation’s decision to make several checks on the welfare of jailed British-born human rights activist Rachel Goldwyn, without seeing any local prisoners during this time.
Goldwyn was jailed in September 1999 for seven years in Insein Prison with hard labour for singing a pro-democracy song in central Rangoon. She was released after two months.
The AAPP says that the ICRC ceased all visits to Burma’s 44 prisons in January 2006, citing an undermining of their impartial mandate to conduct their job independently. Ma Khine’s words, however, are far from complimentary. “They placed new beds in what was previously a bare room. Any woman who suffered miscarriages during birth was replaced by people who appeared in better condition and placed in beds,” she says.
The treatment afforded to her eventually led to a period of depression. One image stands out amongst all others; the sight of infants born as if they were almost ready to die instantly.
“They did not look human, they were so malnourished,” she tells me. In experiencing some of her worst memories after seeing mother after mother being taken away and having their blood wiped off the bare concrete floor with a wet towel, she was thrust into the role of midwife and life saver by delivering twin boys from a desperately ill woman.
“I made it my duty to raise them from the womb. When children are born in Insein Prison, the women have no expression on their faces,” she explains. “When the babies die, their bodies are thrown into plastic bags and buried behind the prison. The mothers do not express their grief because they have no more tears to cry.”
During one ICRC visit, prison authorities deprived Ma Khine the honor of showing just how responsible a mother she was. Before one inspection, she says that she was drugged by the wardens and separated from the children for three days.
The authorities later admitted that they had to take this action to appease the ICRC, who demanded that all children be with their natural mother for the duration of their assessment of the premises and prisoners.
With the death of the children’s biological mother, Ma Khine undertook every task to ensure the boys were cared for. They survived on instant porridge in the absence of breast milk. Supplies of medication, baby formula and nappies were smuggled into the prison. Ma Khine handed over between US $15-20 to every military official, lawyer, judge, superintendent and prison warden in the process.
Today, the adopted boys she has raised are now in primary school and display a great aptitude for learning, regularly winning Student of the Week awards for their academic performances.
“The two boys I am raising are witness to everything I have endured because of the military junta,” Ma Khine says defiantly. But the children are traumatised from their fledgling relationship with their birth country.
Mention the name Burma, and fear is struck into their eyes. They have already vowed never to travel there.
It is this second chance at life that renewed her faith in doing some good and providing a chance for everybody to have an opportunity to be nurtured, regardless of age. “I vowed that nothing would break me. I pushed for a new water tank to be built,” she says.
“The chief warden asked for a donation, which I agreed to but I wanted to see the tank being built.” Her husband lobbied for extra funds following his release from prison.
Ma Khine rejected the offer of being the first prisoner to be washed alongside Rachel Goldwyn, putting her dignity first. “I demanded to be washed at the same time as other inmates, because although I helped fund it being built, I am an ordinary person, just like the other prisoners from Burma,” she says.
Ma Khine ended up being accompanied by seven HIV-infected women that could barely carry their own body weight. These women, she says, were waiting to die. In order to avoid possible retribution, the authorities refused to have any dead bodies on the premises, so they were taken away and cremated as if they never existed.