Yangon's Insein Prison is seen from an aerial view. (Frontier)
Yangon's Insein Prison is seen from an aerial view. (Frontier)

Families left in the dark about 350 youth detained in Yangon

The young activists were arrested at an anti-coup march on March 3 and are presumed to be being held without charge at Insein Prison, but authorities are refusing to give answers.

By FRONTIER

A week after some 350 youth were arrested for taking part in anti-coup demonstrations and taken to Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, their families still do not know why they are being detained – or what condition they are in.

They are among 1,932 people to have been arrested, charged or sentenced for anti-coup activities across Myanmar by March 9, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.“It’s been a week since my daughter was arrested and I don’t know anything for certain. Even the lawyers [we’ve contacted] don’t know what to do,” said Daw Aye Mya, a pseudonym for the mother of a 21-year-old University of Yangon student who is among the detained. She asked not to be named for fear that authorities would punish her daughter. “I am very worried about her,” she said.

Her daughter was among about 500 youth who took part in a March 3 demonstration organised by the University of Yangon Students’ Union and the All Burma Federation of Student Union. Participants planned to march around Tarmwe Township, starting at the corner of Kyar Kwak Thit and Tha Hti Pahtan streets at 10am. But 40 minutes into the march, they were met by police and soldiers at the Kyaung Myaung junction, near the Tarmwe Township police station, who began firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. At least five youth were injured by rubber bullets and some 350 arrested.

“Police and soldiers blocked the street in front of the protesters as more soldiers approached from a side street. They came from both sides and arrested many people,” a final-year University of Yangon maths student who escaped the crackdown told Frontier.

He had attended the demonstration with 10 of his friends and said he was the only one in the group to have made it home that night. “All of my friends were arrested,” he said. “Now I’m disgusted every time I see police or soldiers.”

“They made the students stand in a long line in the hot sun and pointed their guns at them. Some even hit students before arresting them,” said a student union leader who also avoided arrest that day.

The University of Yangon Students Union says about 176 of its students were arrested. Other arrestees included youth activists and students from other universities.

“Most of them are between 18 and 21 years old, and around 40 percent were girls,” said the student union leader, who asked for anonymity for fear of repercussions, adding that at least one detainee is under the age of 16.

None appear to have been released as of March 10, when French ambassador to Myanmar Christian Lechervy visited the prison.

“France calls for the immediate, safe and unconditional release of all political prisoners jailed since the beginning of the military coup of February 1st,” the ambassador wrote on Facebook.

He said he had also met with “the parents of hundreds of students and peaceful protesters [arbitrarily] detained” by the military administration.

He said the detainees were taken away in six military trucks, first to be interrogated at Kyaikkasan Stadium in Tarmwe Township and then to Insein Prison, where Frontier believes they are still begin held without charge.

At the stadium, parents and University of Yangon teachers waited to speak to authorities but said they were only allowed to speak to lower-level officers, before police told them they must leave.

No army or police officers contacted school officials or parents to tell them where the youth were being held. Instead, some from the group outside Kyaikkasan Stadium followed a military convoy to the prison and saw the youth unloaded there.

“They [police or military] didn’t tell us anything. Witnesses and others had to inform me where they’ve taken my daughter,” Aye Mya said.

On March 10, an officer who answered the phone at the Tarmwe police station confirmed to Frontier that those arrested on March 3 were sent to Insein Prison that same day, then immediately hung up the phone.

Officials from Insein Prison could not be reached for comment.

Insein Prison was home to thousands of political prisoners under Myanmar’s previous military junta, and survivors gave harrowing accounts of abuse and deprivation inside the colonial-era jail.

The day after the mass arrest, parents and teachers visited the prison, but authorities would not confirm or deny who was and wasn’t being held there. Instead, each had to send a care package of food or goods addressed to the child or student they were looking for; if the individual was not in custody, the package was returned.

“I had to write my brother’s name and my phone number on the package then give it to officers to take inside. I knew my brother was inside when the goods were not returned,” said the 23-year-old sister of a detained student. “We are still sending him goods every other day.”

Several families have been seeking help from lawyers, but none have been able to learn any details about those in custody.

“Our children were doing what they thought was right … now we feel like we can’t help them,” Aye Mya said.

“We just want to know, will they be charged? With what?” she said. “We don’t know what to do.”

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