Lost in transition: Justice for the disappeared

The relatives of former political prisoners who died in custody want recognition for their suffering but the government does not appear to be listening.


ON MAY 1, 2005, U Aung Hlaing Win disappeared from a Chinese restaurant on Yangon’s Insein Road. For more than a week, his family had no idea what had happened to him.

On May 10, Lieutenant Colonel Min Naing visited the family to tell them that Aung Hlaing Win, a member of the National League for Democracy’s Youth Wing, had been arrested for political activities and died three days later from a heart attack. He was 30 years old.

Aung Hlaing Win’s wife, Ma Hnin Sanda, the mother of two young daughters, rejected the officer’s offer of K100,000 as “compensation”.

“We asked for his body back but were told he had already been cremated at Yayway Cemetery in North Okkalapa,” said U Shwe Joe, Hnin Sanda’s father.

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The family went immediately to the cemetery where they learned that Aung Hlaing Win’s body had first been taken from the prison to North Okkalapa Hospital for an autopsy.

Dr Zaw Zaw, who conducted the autopsy, told the family Aung Hlaing Win body’s had dozens of external injuries, including two broken ribs.

In 2009, Shwe Joe was arrested for political activities and sent to Insein Prison where he befriended some warders who remembered the death of his son-in-law. They told him they had seen Aung Hlaing Win’s body being dragged by the feet.

The family of Aung Hlaing Win hold his portrait. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

The family of Aung Hlaing Win hold his portrait. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

The official autopsy said Aung Hlaing Win died a “natural death”. The family made several attempts to discover the truth, but they were all denied.

“The family is still struggling because of what happened to him,” Shwe Joe told Frontier at a roadside restaurant he runs in Yangon. “At the very least, the government needs to take care of Aung Hlaing Win’s daughter.”

In 1997, U Khin Maung Myint was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison under the notorious Article 5(j) of the Emergency Act for his involvement with the NLD.

He died at Kalay Prison in the far west of Sagaing Region on July 21, 2001, aged 45. His mother, Daw Myint Myint, 82, plunged into a deep depression after he died. She has not left her bed in the 15 years since.

“Since we returned from his funeral, our mother has not moved,” Khin Maung Myint’s sister, Daw Thein Thein Yi, told Frontier at the family’s modest apartment in downtown Yangon’s Chinatown area, its walls decorated with dozens of NLD flags and images of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Even though we were in Yangon and he was in Kalay Prison, the family would travel once a month to see him,” said Thein Thein Yi. The journey involved a train to Mandalay and a bus to Kale and usually took two days each way.

“As you can see, we are not a very well-to-do family,” said Thein Thein Yi, pointing around the apartment. “It was difficult for us financially to go every month, but we relied heavily on him,” she said, wiping away a tear.

Daw Thandar, the wife of journalist Ko Par Gyi, holds a picture of her husband who was killed by the military in 2014. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

Daw Thandar, the wife of journalist Ko Par Gyi, holds a picture of her husband who was killed by the military in 2014. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

The prison authorities did not tell the family of Khin Maung Myint’s death. They learned about it from a friend, U Thein Win, who lived in Kalay and helped the family while Khin Maung Myint was in jail.

Thein Win said Khin Maung Myint contracted a fever almost a month before he died but the prison authorities refused to allow him to receive treatment until his condition deteriorated. He collapsed and died soon after being admitted to hospital.

The family travelled immediately to Kalay for the funeral.

“When we arrived, the authorities isolated us and took us straight to the place we were sleeping. We were watched constantly by the military intelligence officers. Even though they tried to stop people from attending, so many people attended his funeral,” said Thein Thein Yi.

Throughout the interview, Myint Myint lay quietly on a nearby bed. She told Frontier it was too painful to talk about her son.

A form of recovery

The Aung Hlaing Win and Khin Maung Myint families are among dozens that have been documented by former political prisoner Ko Letyar Tun for a photography project profiling the relatives of those involved in politics who later died in custody.

Others include the family of Ko Mya Shwe, whose family was given no reason for his death at Thayawady Prison in April 1999, and U Aung May Thu, a veteran activist who died in Yangon General Hospital in 2002 after spending decades in prison on trumped up charges. He told his family that showing grief over his death would be a victory for the military. “Always keep your thumbs up,” he told them before he died.

Letyar Tun, who spent 19 years in prison for his political activities – including 14 on death row – launched the project to help him recover from his time in jail. He was freed from Insein Prison in November 2012 in a mass amnesty just a few days ahead of the historic visit by US President Barack Obama.

“I had friends who died in prison, so it was important for me to document these families and make sure people know how much they suffered,” he told Frontier.

VETERAN NLD CAMPAIGNER, U Aung May Thu, who died in Yangon General Hospital in 2002. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

VETERAN NLD CAMPAIGNER, U Aung May Thu, who died in Yangon General Hospital in 2002. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

All of the families interviewed for this story said they wanted some form of justice over the deaths of their relatives, but it was more important to them that the truth be revealed to bring closure to their suffering.

At the end of several incredibly emotional interviews, each family member shook hands with the Frontier team and thanked us for listening. They expressed huge relief at being able to discuss the deaths of loved ones.

“I feel so happy talking to you about this,” said Thein Thein Yi, Khin Maung Myint’s sister. “Often I am depressed when I think that I lost my brother, but when I am able to talk about it, I feel happy again,” she said.

Asked what she thought her brother would think about Myanmar having a government led by the NLD, Thein Thein Yi said he would be proud and would most likely have a role in the government.

The government’s responsibility

Many members of the new government are former political prisoners, but there are few indications they are willing to address the issue of those who died in custody under suspicious circumstances.

Government and NLD representatives contacted by Frontier said they knew of no official plans to provide assistance to former political prisoners and their families, such as compensation for what they endured or rehabilitation programs for those who spent years in prison and in many cases were tortured.

Perhaps wary of provoking a backlash from the military, the government has said very little about transitional justice. In an interview with the BBC soon after the NLD’s resounding election victory, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, referring to past injustices, said: “We’re not going in for vengeance and we’re not going in for a series of Nurembergs [a reference to the trials of Nazi leaders after World War Two], but people must change their ways.”

The New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice defines it as “an approach to achieving justice in times of transition from conflict and/or state repression. By trying to achieve accountability and redressing victims, transitional justice provides recognition of the rights of victims, promotes civic trust and strengthens the democratic rule of law.”

The ICTJ says transitional justice takes many forms, including criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform, truth commissions and memorialisation.

U Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, said there appeared to be little desire from the government to provide support for former and current political prisoners and their families.

The AAPP says that as of July 14, there were 116 political prisoners in Myanmar, including 82 in prison and 34 in custody awaiting trial. Another 169 people detained for political activities were awaiting trial on bail.

Due to an apparent lack of political will, the AAPP has taken the responsibility to assist affected families by providing financial support. It has also held two ceremonies to commemorate those who died in prison or under interrogation, issuing certificates to participants. The certificates were proudly displayed in the homes of the families interviewed for this report.

“We have seen no recognition from the government,” said Bo Kyi. “No committee has been formed and no action seems to be being taken,” he said, adding that the government had not responded to the AAPP’s requests for talks.

“It will be impossible for this country to move forward without an apology for what happened in the past. Whether they like it or not, this new government has to take responsibility for what the old government did,” he said.

He estimates that about 200 political prisoners died in jail or under interrogation between 1962 and 2011. Most of the deaths occurred after the military crushed the national uprising in 1988, he said.

“I don’t want to see these people put in prison,” he said of those who committed abuses under military rule. “If we put them in prison, we need to take responsibility and pay for them. That money can be better spent on things that are more important for this country, such as health and education. Justice doesn’t mean taking revenge.”

The family of U Aung May Thu, a National League for Democracy activist who died in Yangon General Hospital in 2002 after more than a decade in prison. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

The family of U Aung May Thu, a National League for Democracy activist who died in Yangon General Hospital in 2002 after more than a decade in prison. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

Just as important for former political prisoners and their families is recognition of their suffering. This could involve reparations – healthcare, scholarships or vocational training, for example – or memorialisation.

On August 8, the 28th anniversary of the 8-8-88 uprising, there were calls for the day to be officially recognised as “Democracy Day”, a potentially effective form of memorialisation. Others include building a museum or erecting statues of political prisoners.

The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society movement has established a temporary museum to commemorate 8-8-88, but it does not have official backing.

“The government needs to establish some sort of truth commission, or whatever they want to call it,” Bo Kyi said. “If the government really wants to say we are going towards democracy, then we need some form of transitional justice, recognition at the minimum. That will be helpful for national reconciliation,” he said, adding that AAPP has proposed a reparation and recognition law for former political prisoners.

Bo Kyi added that resistance from the military would make progress on the issue difficult.

Ms Aileen Thomson, ICTJ’s lead Myanmar expert, agreed that the government did not appear to be greatly interested in transitional justice.

“It would be very symbolic for the new government to make an apology as a way of distancing themselves from the old government,” Thomson told Frontier. “There is potentially space for acknowledgements and apologies for what happened, and that would go a long way to building trust between the government and political prisoners,” she said.

Thomson said transitional justice did not only mean criminal justice. “There are many other forms of it, and in Myanmar’s context, I think that’s important to remember,” she said.

Mr Alex Bateman, a human rights lawyer with more than 10 years’ experience in Southeast Asia, said transitional justice often depended on the power of the outgoing regime.

“If the regime is vanquished, or not very powerful, then that leaves a lot of potential for prosecutions. In Myanmar, the outgoing regime still wields significant power, so any chance of a prosecution is very low,” he said.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has huge economic potential and Bateman said one approach to transitional justice might be to use its wealth to cover the cost of reparations for political prisoners and their families.

“A difficulty will be moving that money away from those who have benefitted for so long,” he said. “Memorials are probably the easiest form of transitional justice. Sometimes they are seen as being too easy, but they do give people an opportunity to recognise and remember what happened in the past.

“The country does need to move on, but without recognising what happened in the past it could be dangerous – in the sense that people could be resentful towards the military or the new government.”

But there are at least indications that the military – presumably in an effort to begin rehabilitating its image – is responding to some of the worst abuses committed by its forces.

In an unprecedented move early this month, the military announced that it was putting on trial seven soldiers accused of killing five unarmed civilians in Shan State in June.

U Aung Myo Min, a former political prisoner and civil rights advocate, said the development was encouraging for advocates of transitional justice.

“In the past, the military had complete impunity,” he told Frontier, adding that new investigations into the death in military custody of journalist Ko Par Gyi – whose widow, Daw Thandar, is profiled in Letyar Tun’s project – and the two Kachin teachers raped and murdered in January 2015 would improve confidence in the transition.

He also supports calls for August 8 to be officially recognised as “Democracy Day”.

For U Mya Ngwe, the brother of political prisoner Mya Shwe who died in Thayawady Prison in 1999, the change of government has allowed him and his family to talk about what happened for the first time.

Becoming emotional as he spoke at the family’s home in Sanchaung Township, he said: “At the time, we dared not talk about what happened because the military was so powerful, but now things have changed. I am happy with the new government, but there is so much to change. Before I die, I want to see all the people in this country free to say and do what they want, but until then I can never forget my brother.”

The photos for this story are in partnership with Framing the Transition, an exhibition that explored various issues in contemporary Myanmar. Top photo: U Mya Ngwe holds a picture of his brother Ko Mya Shwe, who died at Thayawady Prison in 1999. (Letyar Tun / Framing the Transition)

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