“Nothing is more revealing about the situation of human rights in a country than the existence of political prisoners. They embody the denial of the most basic freedoms essential to human kind, such as freedom of opinion and assembly.”
-Paulo Sergio Pinheiro
One very interesting and sad human rights violation we have encountered is the existence of political prisoners in Burma. There is a large population in Mae Sot of former political prisoners as well as former student leaders who fled to escape imprisonment for political “crimes”.
Early on in our stay here in Mae Sot, we visited the organization AAPP, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. BWU partners with AAPP on projects directed toward the advocacy and protection of female political prisoners. AAPP shared with us a lot of interesting facts and their museum, which was largely in English, displaying a replicated jail cell, chains, and torture devices used by the Burmese government.
Political prisoners can be students, activists, journalists, etc. Sometimes they are given false criminal charges but the real motivation behind their imprisonment is political. The Burmese government denies its citizens the right to freedom of speech and assembly, enforcing these laws particularly harshly on university students, who the government views as dangerously revolutionary. We were fortunate enough to talk with Min Min, who works for AAPP, and hear his story.
Min Min was imprisoned for trying to organize a student union at his university. He spent the first year in solitary confinement, was not allowed to read or write, and endured torture at the hands of prison guards. He was also punished later on for participating in hunger strikes with other prisoners in an attempt to gain freedoms. Min Min described how prisoners gained information about events outside their prison by smoking cigarettes and reading the newspaper clippings used to wrap filters. He explains that he had to smoke to stay informed and has since quit. Min Min also expressed that he made it through because his mother came every month to visit him. However, when he was released, he felt immediately in danger of being imprisoned again, and he came to Thailand in hopes to bring his parents here soon.
Visiting AAPP was incredibly informative. We learned that there are 42 prisons and 109 labor camps in Burma. AAPP tries to improve the situations of current and former political prisoners through sponsorship. They organize visits for family members to prisons and delivery of medical supplies. Once prisoners are released, they try to support their transition back into society.
Since our visit to AAPP, encounters with former political prisoners has added to our understanding of the immensity of the situation. We attended a Burmese wedding in which both the bride and groom were former political prisoners. When we’ve visited GED schools and political organizations, invariably at least one person there will tell us they were a former political prisoner.
The ability to organize student unions and participate in student government are freedoms that we as students in the U.S. take for granted, but in Burma these “crimes” can land you a hefty jail sentence.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Colleen, Katie, and Abbey