Myanmar’s Prisons: Torture, COVID-19 and the Chanting Protests of Prisoners

July 30th, 2021  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  10 minute read
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“The National Unity Government (NUG) has made it clear that the military junta is weaponizing the COVID-19 pandemic to punish political prisoners, through not stopping the spread of the deadly virus and denying access to healthcare completely or until inmates are unable to breathe.”

The outside world is blocked from knowing the full situation of conditions inside prisons in Myanmar in the aftermath of the illegal coup d’etat attempt by the Myanmar military. There are rare glimpses provided by those arbitrarily detained and later released, detailing the excruciating and sickening torture. Accounts by released Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi and editor-in-chief of Kamayut Media Nathan Maung, tell of the junta inflicting beatings, sleep deprivation, cigarette burns to the body, denial of food and water, sexual assualts, threats of rape and forced into solitary confinement called ‘dog kennels’ for days at a time. As part of their vicious campaign of terror, and in the vein of an Orwelian police state, the military junta has been scouring the country finding dissidents to their regime. Since the coup, 5,360 remain in detention, 1,963 outstanding warrants to arrest, and 65 people have been sentenced to death, often in absentia. As of 11 June, at least 22 people have been killed as a result of torture in prisons or interrogation centers since the coup, with some being detained under the cover of night and then lifeless by morning returned to families with signs of torture, and the Myanmar military shamelessly claiming natural cuases or COVID-19 were responsible for these deaths.

While the threat of violence against detainees is ever present, so is the overcrowding and despotic conditions of the prisons themselves, now a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases. At Myanmar’s most infamous prison, Insein Prison in Yangon, there are around 10,000 inmates in a facility built during the colonial era, unfit to house this many prisoners – especially during a deadly global pandemic. On 16 July, media reported 50 inmates at Insein Prison have contracted COVID-19, including National League for Democracy (NLD) party members, doctors in the Civil Disobedience Movement, Danny Fenster the Editor of Frontier Myanmar and Australian economists and advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell who is presenting with symptoms. The military junta’s media mouthpiece Myawaddy TV announced that 566 prisoners have been infected with COVID-19 since the third wave began in prisons throughout Myanmar, but actual numbers of COVID-19 are likely to be much higher, especially if the conditions are analogous to those inside Insein Prison. Many of those infected at Insein Prison remain there, and those being detained in a large cell can often contain around 80 other prisoners, with little space and inadequate means to mitigate the spread. The conditions are unhygienic, cramped and the attitude of those in charge is one of indifference to who lives or dies, only to push forward with oppressing dissidence among the populace – a gross affront to the most basic human rights, such as the right to life, freedom from torture, and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. The National Unity Government (NUG) has made it clear that the military junta is weaponizing the COVID-19 pandemic to punish political prisoners, through not stopping the spread of the deadly virus and denying access to healthcare completely or until inmates are unable to breathe.

On Friday, in courageous defiance, prisoners staged a protest at Insein Prison, with chants being heard outside the walls of the prison, with demands for an end to the military junta, adequate COVID-19 protections, overcrowding and access to healthcare which is often denied. One example is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal lawyer U Nyan Win who died of COVID-19 while in detention last Tuesday. Six truckloads of soldiers were brought in to quell the protest, but not much more is known about the incident. Inmates at Shwe Bo Prison in Sagaing Region and Obo Prison in Mandalay Region have also staged protests, spurred on by the protest at Insein Prison.

Meanwhile, the junta is conducting murderous military offensives in ethnic areas, resulting in mass displacement during a deadly global pandemic, in direct contravention to the UN Security Council Resolution 2532 which calls for a global ceasefire to combat the pandemic, with the UN having a key coordinating role in responding to COVID-19. This should include the UN assisting a coordinated response with the newly established COVID-19 Task Force, formed by the NUG, Ethnic Health Organizations and spearheaded by leading border humanitarian healthcare provider Dr. Cynthia Maung of the Mae Tao Clinic, which provides constructive solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar that by-passes the junta, through local healthcare providers.

People on the ground and in prisons are in desperate need of oxygen, medical treatment and a cohesive and safe vaccination programme, which requires international support of local actors and recognizing the NUG. Echoing the call for an international humanitarian response to address COVID-19 and the conflict is the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), which is urging the UN Security Council to step in and mandate a humanitarian intervention. Former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and SAC-M Co-founder and member, Yanghee Lee, strongly asserts that “The junta is not a partner for the delivery of aid. That is why a humanitarian presence on the ground is needed. Assistance must be delivered through international medical personnel, and international protection given to Myanmar’s own medical professionals who are desperate to come out of hiding and work to save their country. No one will trust anything from the junta now.”

The treatment of prisoners can be extrapolated out to the country as a whole, as in all spheres the junta is weaponizing COVID-19, withholding humanitarian aid and blocking civil society organizations and INGOs from assisting those in need – including prisoners. Decades of impunity, fueled by stagnant accountability and justice at the international level, has reinforced the Myanmar military to act with carte blanche authority over the people of Myanmar and arbitrarily detain them inside hellish prisons, without any regard for human rights. To bring about an end to international atrocity crimes committed by the junta, the perpetrators must be prosecuted through a referral by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal. The international community, bound by obligations to protect and promote human rights irrespective of state boundaries, is utterly failing the people of Myanmar in this now unfolding human rights, humanitarian and COVID-19 crisis – with States like Australia and New Zealand who have not joined their allies in the EU, US and UK to place targeted sanctions on the junta, rather shifting the responsibility to the unresponsive ASEAN to take the lead on the Myanmar crisis. It has been three months since the ASEAN Summit on Myanmar, and nothing has been achieved, in fact the humanitarian situation and the COVID-19 crisis are markedly worse. Nothing less than a collective global response, led by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly through the leadership of the UN Secretary-General, can assist the pro-democracy movement of people of Myanmar to defeat the junta and realize genuine federal democracy.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

နိုင်ငံအဝှမ်း မတရားဖမ်းဆီးခံ ရဲဘော်များကြုံတွေ့နေရသော ထောင်တွင်း ဖိနှိပ်မှုများနှင့် စပ်လျဉ်းသည့် သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာချက်

By All Burma Federation of Student Unions

Joint statement from Ambassadors to Myanmar

By Ambassadors to Myanmar (Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France,  Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, United Kingdom, United States)


By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Urgent Diplomatic Release on Insein Prison Strike

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Joint letter on prison conditions and COVID-19

By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights, Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, Union for Civil Liberty, Manushya Foundation and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights

CDF(Matupi) သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက် ၂/၂၀၂၁

By Chinland Defense Force (Matupi)

Chin National Organization ၏ အထူးသိပေးထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Chin National Organization

လူသားချင်းစာနာထောက်ထားမှုဆိုင်ရာအကူအညီများ ကူညီဆောင်ရွက်ပေးရန်ကိစ္စ

By Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw

နိုင်ငံရေးအကျဉ်းသားများအား အမြန်ဆုံး အကူအညီပေးရန် ကိစ္စ

By Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw

COVID-19 Task Force Statement from the COVID-19 Task Force of Ministry of Health, NUG & Ethnic Health Organisations

By COVID-19 Task Force

လူ့ဘောင်သစ်ဒီမိုကရက်တစ်ပါတီ၏ နိုင်ငံရေးအမြင် သုံးသပ်ချက် ၃/၂၀၂၁

By Democratic Party for a New Society

U.N. Member States: Form Emergency Coalition to Respond to COVID Outbreak and Coup d’état in Myanmar

By Fortify Rights

The Human Rights Foundation of Monland Expresses Concern Over Junta’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in latest briefing paper, “Running Out of Air”

By Human Rights Foundation of Monland

Myanmar: Junta Tribunals Impose 65 Death Sentences

By Human Rights Watch

ICRC Statement

By International Committee of the Red Cross

IFEX calls on Myanmar junta to drop all charges under new censorship legislation, free all protestors and journalists, and restore media licenses

By International Freedom of Expression Exchange

Tokyo Olympics tainted by sponsorship from companies financing the Myanmar military’s terror

By Justice For Myanmar

KHRG’s Statement on Mass Killing in Dooplaya District

By Karen Human Rights Group

MAP condemns the Myanmar junta’s attempt to usurp ambassador posts in the UK and the UN, and calls on the British Government and the UN General Assembly to refuse accreditation

By Myanmar Accountability Project

Provision of oxygen concentrators for the treatment of COVID-19 patients in Myanmar

By Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Myanmar: Human rights defenders under siege, say UN experts

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

အနီရောင်အဆင့် Covid-19 ကပ်ရောဂါတားဆီးကာကွယ်ရန်အတွက် Stay Home နေထိုင်ကြရန် ထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာခြင်း၊ ထုတ်ပြန်ချက်အမှတ်( ၃/၂၀၂၁)

By Palaung State Liberation Front

Myanmar Critically Needs Massive UN-Mandated Humanitarian Intervention to Fight COVID

By Special Advisory Council for Myanmar

University of Yangon Students’ Union Announcement (4/2021) – Emergency Announcement Regarding Protests inside Insein Prison

By University of Yangon Students’ Union

ရက္ခိုင်အမျိုးသားအဖွဲ့ချုပ် အမှတ်၊ (၃/၂၀၂၁) ရခိုင်ပြည်အတွင်း State Home ကိုယ့်အိမ်တွင်ကိုယ်နေထိုင်ရမည့်ကာလအား ရက်သတ္တပတ် (၂) ပတ် သတ်မှတ်ကြောင်း ထုတ်ပြန်ကြေညာချက်

By United League of Arakan

UN Country Team in Myanmar Steps up COVID-19 Response Efforts

By United Nations Myanmar



Protests Persist Across Myanmar Despite Ongoing Arrests, Torture and Killings by Junta

By CIVICUS Monitor

Running Out of Air How the Junta is Abandoning Civilians in the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Human Rights Foundation of Monland

Bi-weekly Situation Update: Summary of SAC Violations in Karenni State and Pekhon Township

By Karenni Civil Society Network

Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot (13 – 19 July 2021)

By United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The Situation of Human Rights Amid the Military Coup in Burma

By Women’s League of Burma

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”