Authorities in Myanmar’s prisons and interrogation centres routinely subject people detained for resisting the 2021 military coup to torture and other cruel or degrading treatment, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing, more than a year and a half after the power grab shattered the country’s halting transition to civilian rule.
Based on 15 interviews carried out in March 2022 with former detainees, lawyers of prisoners and experts, as well as a review of over 100 news reports, the briefing, 15 Days Felt like 15 Years, documents the horrific experiences of individuals from the moment they are arrested, through their interrogation and imprisonment, and after their release.
Since the 1 February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military has arrested more than 14,500 people and killed more than 2,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
From showing up without an arrest warrant and forcing confessions through torture or other ill-treatment, to enforceable disappearances, reprisals against relatives, and holding detainees incommunicado from family and legal counsel, military authorities flout the law at every stage of the arrest and detention process.
This was horrifically demonstrated in the unlawful execution of four men in July, including a prominent pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker, following their death sentences by a military court. The executions were the first to be carried out in more than 30 years. More than 70 people remain on death row in Myanmar while 41 have been sentenced to death in absentia, according to AAPP.
“Myanmar has stooped to unimaginable new lows in its vile and brutal treatment of detainees as part of an overall strategy intended to break their spirits and compel people to give up any resistance to the 2021 military coup,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard.
“But it is having the opposite effect. The Myanmar people remain unbowed even after the litany of violations, including most recently the shameful and despicable executions of Kyaw Min Yu – also known as Ko Jimmy – Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.”
“As a matter of urgency, Myanmar’s military must free thousands of people languishing in detention simply for exercising their rights, and let them return to their families. The United Nations Security Council must increase the pressure on the Myanmar military with a referral to the International Criminal Court, a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions.”
Tased and beaten
Amnesty’s research reveals how prison officials kicked and slapped detainees, and also beat them with rifle butts, electrical wires and branches of a palm tree.
Detainees allege they were psychologically tortured with death and rape threats to force confessions or extract information about anti-coup activities. One person was presented with a parcel delivery that contained a fake bomb.
Several former detainees interviewed by Amnesty International observed that other detainees had visible injuries on their bodies, including blood, broken limbs, and swollen faces.
“When they [the police] found us sleeping, they beat us. When they caught us sitting, they beat us…They pointed G3 rifles at our foreheads and threatened that they could kill us anytime,” said one student arrested in the central Magwe Region.
During the interrogation, whenever I used feminine pronouns for myself, they said you are gay, so you must like this and exposed their male genitals in front of me.
One woman heard security forces plunging the head of another detainee in a bucket of water and using a taser on the person several times during interrogation.
A student activist told Amnesty International that he saw police bang his friend’s head against the wall. Police also used a taser on his genitals and threatened to blow them up with a grenade.
Ma Kyu, who was arrested in Karenni State for protesting the coup, told Amnesty what a police officer told her after she was detained:
“We can just kill you after the arrest. We do not even need to put you in jail. We can simply shoot you.”
‘They took off my clothes’
Interrogators also committed sexual and gender-based crimes.
Saw Han Nway Oo is a transwoman who was arrested and detained in September 2021 by the military on suspicion of having attended self-defence training. She was taken to the Mandalay Palace interrogation centre, which has become notorious for reports of torture.
Over three days, she was interrogated at the palace centre and at a police station. She said the interrogators scratched her knees with sharp objects and sprayed methylated spirit over the bleeding wounds. She was not given food or water for three days.
“During the interrogation, whenever I used feminine pronouns for myself, they said you are gay, so you must like this and exposed their male genitals in front of me.”
They also looked at messages with her doctor and asked if she had had a sex-change operation. They then took off her clothes, looked at her naked body and mocked her.
Other LGBTI people also experienced thorough body checks of their private body parts to ‘‘ensure whether they are males or females,” according to one detainee.
Humiliating and invasive body searches may constitute torture or other ill-treatment, particularly for transgender detainees.
Blindfolded and cut off
Arrests are typically conducted during the night. During these night raids, soldiers and police break down doors, beat residents, ransack houses, confiscate electronics such as phones and laptops, and occasionally take valuable items such as jewellery.
Protest leader Ma Win was arrested while travelling on a passenger bus in Mandalay Region. She was slapped in the face, handcuffed, blindfolded and driven to an unknown location.
During an interrogation lasting more than 24 hours, security forces wearing heavy boots beat and kicked her and repeatedly threatened to kill her.
Lawyers who Amnesty International spoke to described facing difficulties when trying to discover their clients’ whereabouts. At times, they resorted to paying bribes to get basic information.
The prison facilities are crowded, with one person describing staying with 50 people in a cell meant for 10. Detainees also found dead insects and worms in their food.
Though the experience of detention has exacted a profound psychological toll on those who have survived it, many activists are determined to keep resisting.
“We will never give up,” Saw Han Nway Oo told Amnesty. “We are like phones, we will recharge once we run out of batteries.”