The name of the interviewee has been changed to protect the identity of innocent people at risk of being harmed by the military junta in Burma. The interviewee has also requested that the following account be dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi and all nightbirds incarcerated in prisons through Burma.
Imagine losing the ability to communicate about horrific life experiences in your native tongue, or being unable to sleep for more than an hour every night.
Your company is the painful cries of others whose lives are slowly ticking away, and who arewaiting for that inevitable moment when the weight of a death sentence finally crushes the body and spirit.
Yet somehow, in spite of the isolation, despair, and suicidal thoughts, your body refuses to lay down forever and become landfill for an unofficial graveyard.
In Burma, few words strike terror into the heart of a human bring like the words Insein Prison, a destination that can only be described as hell on earth. This is where the leader of Burma’s military regime, Senior General Than Shwe, intends to place Nobel Peace Prize recipient and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ma Khine knows about Insein Prison all too well, and as a survivor her experience leads to a dire warning. “My greatest fear is that if Aung San Suu Kyi is sent to Insein Prison, she will die. That is what the military regime wants, to silence her forever.”
In 1999, Ma Khine was sentenced to two and a half years jail in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison. She and her husband lost everything they had worked for. More harrowing for Ma Khine is the thought of losing her ability to speak Burmese.
The former inmate points out that she nearly lost the capability to express herself, linking this to the consequences of being locked inside the walls where nightmarish accounts of survivors are seldom revealed.
Ma Khine fought her sentence immediately upon being transferred into Insein Prison. She attributes this to having a family steeped in a tradition of fighting for democracy. Although she succeeded in not serving her full sentence, the six month period she remained locked up produced memories of the most horrific nature.
Amongst the worst experiences were a suicide attempt, exposure to a bare room filled with sick and dying newborn babies, and rows of women rolling in their own pit of blood following miscarriages.
“The children…” Ma Khine laments, our conversation grinding to a halt. Her wounds from Insein Prison open up, and a resolute woman is reduced to tears from recalling the most difficult periods in her life.
These days Ma Khine manages a small shop, which also serves as a community center for individuals from Burma.
Ma Khine’s husband was jailed in 1998 and refuses to speak to anybody about why he was taken away. “He just wants to forget about the past,” she says. While he served his sentence, Ma Khine lobbied and secured his transfer to a clinic, but she was forced to bribe military officials, lawyers, judges, superintendents and prison wardens.
“I gave them every possession I had just to get him out and ensure that he received proper attention in a hospital.”
In between awkward silences, Ma Khine believes that the true nature of looking out for a lifetime partner is displayed in times of adversity. She believes that one of God’s greatest gifts is that she and her husband were never locked up at the same time.
“If one of us is in jail, the other one is always lobbying from the outside for our release. That is how we have managed to survive,” she adds. “When I was fighting for my release, I also helped feed the women inside the (makeshift) clinic. My husband collected money from outside of jail to bring in supplies of fresh fruit and cooked food.”
Burma is today most often associated with genocide, rape, torture and poverty inflicted upon the civilian population, but Ma Khine recalls images of a more peaceful time years after Burma obtained independence in 1948, one year after its architect General Aung San, father of jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated.
“When I was young, my parents told me stories that at least the British respected human rights and that we had food,” she begins. “Back in the days when Britain ruled over Burma, their saying was ‘The Sun Is Always Shining.’” This refers to the coloniser’s perceived eternal presence, but as Ma Khine tells me, “every empire crumbles.”
As a student, Ma Khine attended Mehs English High School which also boasted some famous students. This includes Naw Louisa Benson, a former Miss Burma who married an ethnic Karen revolutionary fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the children of former dictator General Ne Win.
“The military junta hate the British but they are worse than anyone could ever have imagined,” Ma Khine says, and she is convinced that the regime’s decision to changed Burma’s name to Myanmar was to rid its colonial links and assert patriotism through the use of brute force.
In snubbing criticism from the outside world, the junta has adopted a localized spin on the saying once coined by the British rulers by declaring “The Sky Is Always Blue”. This refers to the junta’s stated beliefs that poverty, unhappiness and human rights abuses do not exist, even in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people and left millions homeless. Unofficial reports from within Burma have estimated that the toll is closer to 300,000.
“The people of Burma are tired of what the military is doing to them. They are so poor, they have nothing,” Ma Khine laments. To her, it is inconceivable that people should die of hunger in a country that is rich in resources.
Ma Khine’s grandfather was a mayor and chief justice for ten years prior to General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962. Her father was a freelance lawyer who supported and advised members of the National League for Democracy, including Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U. “His focus was on representing the poor people and never charged them any money for his services,” she adds.
In 1996, the experience of owning a business in her home country turned sour for Ma Khine and her husband. Ma Khine’s father argued that they were the rightful owners, but the regime ignored their pleas. She says the junta imprisoned her because of her father’s political affiliation, something the regime exploited for their own gain.
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.
The sight of watching so many women pass through the doors of Insein Prison only to die is a thought that clearly leaves Ma Khine distressed. The women, she says, are not political activists and have no desire other than to make enough money to live from selling vegetables on the streets at night.
“These women are called night birds,” she says. “They are poor provincial girls, all under 20 years of age. Police officers wait at the port for their arrival by boat and abduct them. They cannot afford to bribe the officers and are accused of being prostitutes.”
Police officers rape the women before throwing them into prison. The night birds are issued with harsh sentences of up to 40 years imprisonment, and in the process, contract HIV/AIDS and eventually die.
The most tragic part about the fate of these women, Ma Khine says, is that the junta-controlled media release their propaganda, declaring that now less drug dealers roam the streets of Rangoon and that their tough zero tolerance policy has resulted in the eradication of more opium poppy fields that the women “cultivate”. They are, in reality, farms that the families of night birds are forcibly removed from.
There is no end to the admiration and affinity that Ma Khine has for Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to remain in Burma to be with her people. “Aung San Suu Kyi has dedicated herself to represent all people living in Burma. She is destined to be leader because everybody loves her. Locking up this wonderful woman is a waste of life,” she says.
To defeat the junta, Ma Khine believes only a show of strength and unity will work. “There is a great truth to the song line, ‘we are one/but we are many’” (from “I Am Australian”).
While she believes that the junta is vulnerable based on the fact that nothing is permanent, Ma Khine cannot help but express her anger at the regime for crushing the dreams of a civilian democracy in 1988, 1990 and 2007, moments that Ma Khine refers to as the denial of our time. “David, look at the 2010 election. It will not be general,” she warns. “The dictators running Burma will force everybody to vote one way – their way.”
Ma Khine has promised to share her full story about life in Insein Prison one day, but is adamant that regime change must come first. For her, such personal details can only ever be made public in Burma under a civilian democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
When it comes to the question of Burma, it is time to finally make good on the promise never again, or the words of German pastor Martin Niemöller will return to haunt us all:
“…Then they came from me, and by that time no one was left to speak up…” (First They Came, circa 1946).
The price of failure in this mission to save Burma’s people will be the never-ending cry of more than 54 million souls that we could have saved.