Students released from prison, some report being tortured

The Myanmar military this week announced the release of more than 5,600 political prisoners, including students, who were arrested and faced trial for participating in actions against the military coup. But more than a hundred, including students, were re-arrested within hours and many remain behind bars.

Many of the released prisoners revealed in interviews that they had been tortured in military interrogation camps and at least one student who had been tortured died in prison.

Salaing Law Shein Kee, a third-year student of chemistry at Pakokku University, Magway Region and chairman of the Pakokku University Students’ Union (PUSU), was released on 19 October under the military amnesty. He told University World News that he and another student, who was the PUSU secretary, were arrested at the university on 19 February while demonstrating to encourage others to join the Civil Disobedience movement.

“As we were arrested a few days after the coup, we were not sent to the interrogation centre. We were very lucky we were sent directly to Pakokku Prison,” he said.

“Students who were arrested later at the end of February were sent for interrogation for a week or three days. Most of them, including the students I met in the prison, shared their experiences of how they were brutally tortured and beaten badly. Most of them arrived at the prison with body injuries and trauma. I met a young activist who lost his leg. Another one was badly injured and had a huge suppuration wound from his injuries. Some of them even lost their teeth.”

Other released prisoners revealed details of how they had been tortured.

“During the interrogation, they beat me until they got the information they wanted. They let me lean against a wall and threw stones at me. They threatened me with guns. I also had to take a shower with toilet water and brush my teeth,” a member of University Students’ Union Alumni Force told BBC Burmese.

Ko Soe Htet Oo, a member of the University of Yangon Students’ Union who was released on Monday, told RFA Burmese he was tortured before he was sent to prison.

“Even though we were not beaten when we were sent to Insein Prison [in Yangon], we were taken to a room and beaten blindfolded in Shwe Pyi Thar interrogation centre. What they did is against human dignity. We have heard that girls were victims of sexual harassment.”

Lin Paing Soe, a final-year engineering student at Kyaukse Technological University who led anti-regime protests in the capital Naypyitaw and Mandalay, died in military custody at Mandalay Nann Twin Interrogation Centre on 1 October, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported on 21 October.

A friend who is a member of the Mandalay Yadanabon University Students’ Union told the Irrawaddy newspaper: “He died soon after he was detained on 30 September. He was beaten because he was non-Burmese and died in interrogation,” the friend was quoted as saying, noting that Lin Paing Soe was of the Gurkha Buddhist ethnic minority.

“The regime said he was sent to Obo Prison in Mandalay which was a lie,” the friend added.

Rights groups have noted that student union members, members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic minorities were more likely than others to be tortured.

ABFSU Chair Ko Aung Pyae Sone Phyo told University World News: “As students are educated and able to see clearly what they want to do or what they want to become, the military is afraid of them.”

He added: “The military brutally oppresses students because they are worried that the students’ spirit of rebellion against the military might spread to their family, district, township, region and even the whole country.”

ABFSU said Aye Nanda Soe, chairperson of the Sagaing University Students’ Union, was arrested in Sagaing Region by military in plain clothes on 19 September and her whereabouts have not been known for a month. The 21-year-old was a fourth-year student at Sagaing University of Education.

“It has been exactly one month since the unlawful arrest of Aye Nanda Soe. Since we don’t know where she was taken and detained, we are very concerned for the safety of her life,” ABFSU said on its Facebook page on 19 October.

Prisoners released and immediately detained

Under a military council amnesty announced on 18 October, the military said 1,316 prisoners who had been sentenced would be released, while another 4,320 detained while facing trial would be released and charges would be withdrawn for participating in protests against the February 2021 coup.

However, some released political prisoners were immediately detained again. They include a former board director of the Monywa University Students’ Union, Ko Thant Zin Ko, in Monywa city, Sagaing Region.

The military arrested Ko Thant Zin Ko on 2 April after they failed to arrest his father, an activist.

Chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) Ko Aung Pyae Sone Phyo, a fourth-year student at Yangon University of Education, told University World News that “students have been recaptured like this in the past after saying they would be released. The reason for his [Ko Thant Zin Ko’s] re-arrest was probably because they assumed he could fight back with the [resistance] army after he was released.”

Salaing Law Shein Kee, who is also an ABFSU member, and is now in hiding, told University World News: “The military immediately arrested some of the people who were released. That’s why I also have to hide somewhere that I think is safe. There is no guarantee they won’t arrest us again.”

He said on being released after eight months in jail they noticed big changes in the country. “So we will try to assess the current situation in the country, then we will decide what to do next.”

Impact of international pressure

Ko Aung Pyae Sone Phyo said the release of prisoners had taken place because the military “wanted less pressure from the international community”.

The Myanmar rights group AAPP said in a statement on Thursday: “These actions, of re-arresting soon after supposed release, having met with family for some hours or even arriving at jail gates only to be taken back to prison, are a form of physical and mental torture, not only to the political detainees, but their families.”

According to AAPP documentation, 110 political prisoners were re-arrested soon after their release since the 18 October announcement. “And yet, there will be more arrests as some are in hiding or have been in lost contact. The hope is for every detainee to be released. These re-arrests destroy this desire,” AAPP said.

“It is clear, the military junta is targeting the mental well-being of not only the political prisoners, but their children and family members,” it said.

Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, said last month that the military takes relatives hostage, including children, when they cannot detain their targets.

Some relatives said although their loved ones had been on a list of those to be released, they were still in detention and the military government was not providing any information about their locations and when they would be released. Lawyers acting for them said they were unable to provide any information.

“The junta will continue to refuse to be transparent about the individual persons released, and who remains detained. Released prisoners from 18 October may include some political prisoners but the intention is not to relax repression,” AAPP said, adding that the releases would almost certainly be less than the number stated by the military regime.

‘Numbers lower than claimed’

Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch (HRW), also said in a statement released by HRW on 21 October that “the actual numbers released may prove to be far lower than claimed”. This had been the case with a prisoner release in June when the junta claimed 2,000 were being let go. AAPP said they were only able to verify the release of 372.

“The Myanmar junta’s recent prisoner releases are limited in scope and do not reflect a broader change in the military’s respect for human rights,” HRW said in its 21 October statement from Bangkok, Thailand.

“The junta’s announcement suggests that the authorities are dropping charges of ‘incitement’ under Section 505A of Myanmar’s Penal Code, a vague new law promulgated by the junta to punish comments critical of the coup or the military government. However, many of those charged with incitement are facing other charges as well and may continue to be detained on those charges,” HRW said.

According to AAPP, 1,181 people have now been confirmed killed by the junta since the coup. This is the number verified by AAPP; the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher.

This article was amended on 22 October 2021 to include testimony from a member of the Pakokku University Students’ Union.