I couldn’t see the soldiers through my blindfold, but their words were terrifying enough.
“If they refused to answer our questions, we raped them – women and men – and then killed them.”
Despite the casual delivery, it was clear that the soldiers were threatening me. I had read numerous reports about soldiers sexually assaulting people in detention but I never imagined it would happen to me.
After covering the aftermath of the February 2021 coup along with my Frontier colleagues, I quietly flew out of Yangon to Thailand in October. The State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself, had been increasingly targeting journalists and I no longer felt safe. I had been living in a safe house for months, and soldiers and police visited my former residence at least twice looking for me.
I made some enquiries and found I was not on the blacklist at Yangon International Airport, so I got a Thai visa and bought a ticket. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel relaxed until the plane actually took off.
After finishing hotel quarantine, I resumed my work in Chiang Mai. I was close to finishing several pieces for Frontier when I got some bad news from Yangon: a close relative was seriously ill. I felt a powerful need to return and care for them.
I knew there were risks in returning but they’d let me leave Myanmar less than two months earlier; getting back in would surely be no harder.
I expected to face nothing more than a two-week stay in quarantine when I arrived back in Yangon. But as my plane landed around 8pm on December 12, I felt an overwhelming sense of fear.
Many people from Myanmar will understand this fear. We can be arrested at any time, for no apparent reason. It doesn’t matter whether you’re involved in fighting the dictatorship – with the military in charge, you can never be truly safe in Myanmar.
The airport was eerily quiet. We filed off the plane towards the counter where we needed to choose whether to spend our quarantine in a hotel or government facility. I chose hotel quarantine and an official directed me to the immigration counter. That was where my nightmare began.
Our interaction started casually enough; I handed my passport over the counter, and the immigration officer stamped it and entered my arrival date. But then he said vaguely that I needed to wait a moment while they checked some other things.
Ten minutes later, four fully armed police officers arrived and took me off into the corner of the room, a short distance from the immigration counter. They didn’t tell me why I was being stopped, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I sent a few short messages to my colleagues that the police had stopped me.
The officers started asking questions, things like, “Did you write anti-SAC articles?” and “Do you have connections to the National Unity Government and People’s Defence Forces?” Then they said, “Do you know that you have been charged under 505A?”.
This set my heart racing. By now, most people from Myanmar are familiar with the phrase “505A”: an incitement charge in the Penal Code that carries a potential three-year prison term, and which the junta has used regularly against its opponents.
I had no idea what to do but tried to stay calm. I replied that journalists need to speak to all sides, so I had to contact the NUG and PDFs for my articles. Obviously, I would not have returned to Myanmar if I knew that I had been charged, I told them.
At first, I thought my responses had worked. They took me away in a police car, but dropped me at the government quarantine centre in Dagon Seikkan Township. Had they just been trying to scare me?
My heart sank, however, when the police took my laptop, mobile phone and passport. I realised I hadn’t wiped my devices as thoroughly as I had on the way out of Myanmar. They still had some sensitive information on them. I had another phone hidden in my luggage, and with that I sent a message to Frontier explaining what had happened.
An hour later, soldiers and police arrived at my room. I was handcuffed and my eyes were covered with a black cloth, but I had time to see one soldier had the two-star insignia of a lieutenant. One of them told me that I would have to stay at a hotel for 14 days due to COVID-19 prevention measures.
The handcuffs and blindfold suggested this was unlikely. Thirty minutes after getting into a vehicle it came to a halt. To this day I still don’t know exactly where I was taken, but I believe it was one of the junta-run interrogation centres in Yangon. Since the coup, these centres have earned a notorious reputation for the torture handed out to detainees, some of whom have died during interrogation.
They forced me to sit on the floor and left me alone. After maybe three hours – it’s hard to tell when you’re blindfolded – several men came into the room and said they found emails I had sent to the NUG, and a story I had written about the telcos MPT and Mytel surveilling their customers.
They particularly wanted to know the identities of the sources in the story. Knowing what the consequences would be if I gave them the names, I told them I had promised the sources their identities would remain secret. I also pleaded with the soldiers to let me go, trying to convince them that I had quit Frontier in October.
They then started kicking me in the abdomen and beating me around the head with their guns. When I asked for a cup of water, they threatened to kick me again. They kept asking questions, about my work and Frontier. I remained blindfolded the whole time.
I think this continued for an hour, after which they sent me back to a hotel in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. It was about 2am and I was starving; I tried to call the hotel reception but the phone seemed to have been disconnected.
In the morning, officials from the Ministry of Health turned up for my COVID-19 test and breakfast arrived at my door. The officials said nothing about the bruising on my face.
I hoped my ordeal was over but spent the day waiting in fear. At about 9pm, the soldiers and police returned and I was again blindfolded and taken somewhere. The interrogation went on even longer that night. They kept repeating the same questions and beating me when I didn’t give them the answers they wanted. At some point in the morning, I was sent back to the hotel. I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep.
I thought it couldn’t get worse, but I was wrong.
I will never forget the events of the following day, December 14. I had always considered the 14th of any month to be a lucky day: my wife and I got married on February 14, and my son’s birthday is July 14.
Again, I was blindfolded and taken to the interrogation centre. A soldier gave me a cup of water, and then they asked me the same questions. As on the previous days, I refused to give them the information they were after.
I then heard a girl screaming, possibly from the room next door. A soldier told me, “Min thu ko lote ya meh.” This literally meant I would have to do something for or to her, but from the context I knew they meant I would have to have sex with her. If I didn’t, they said, they would do “something” to me. I was terrified, but I refused.
They asked again: who were the sources for the article? I told them I couldn’t remember, but they didn’t believe me.
That was when they started to rape me. I begged them to stop, but they just told me to be quiet. It went on for about an hour.
I was in shock; I never expected the soldiers would behave like that. It occurred to me that if they were sick enough to rape me, they could kill me at any moment.
I couldn’t stay silent any longer; all I could think about was getting out alive. I thought about how to respond while giving away as little information as possible, to minimise the risk to others.
One of the things they had been demanding were the phone numbers of three colleagues who were already out of the country, along with the numbers of an activist and a lawyer. I couldn’t remember the numbers, but I offered to retrieve them from my phone. It seemed as though it would be easy enough for them to get the numbers through other channels, anyway.
Revealing the identities of sources was a more sensitive matter. I told them the position of one government official, but said I couldn’t remember their name or number, and gave a fake name and number for a police officer.
In desperation, I then told the soldiers I also worked as a national consultant for UNICEF. This wasn’t a total lie, but my part-time contract with UNICEF had actually ended months ago – that’s why it hadn’t occurred to me to mention it earlier.
Maybe saying I was with a UN agency worked, or maybe they just felt they had enough information, but shortly afterwards they sent me back to the hotel. Despite what I had experienced, I felt relieved to be alive.
The next day, a senior military officer came to my hotel together with police from Mingalar Taung Nyunt and Sanchaung townships.
They told me I would be charged under not only section 505A of the Penal Code, but also 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act and the Counter-Terrorism Law. But then they offered to withdraw the charges if I agreed not to reveal anything about my detention, including the sexual abuse I suffered.
They had prepared a six-point statement for me to sign: Aside from staying silent about my experience, I would not be able to work for Frontier or contact the NUG or PDFs, and I would need to inform the Sanchaung Township police station at least 10 days in advance if I wanted to travel domestically or internationally. The agreement said I would receive my laptop, mobile phone and passport back within a week. If I broke the agreement, I would face the original charges.
I told them I needed time to think about it. Although I desperately wanted to get out of detention, the idea of making a deal with the regime still made me feel sick.
When they came back the next day, though, I was ready to sign. I was worried about my family, and what they might do to them if I refused.
Once I had signed, the senior officer said I would be able to go home after completing quarantine on December 20. This concern with COVID-19 regulations may seem absurd, but not to those familiar with the workings of the Myanmar military. It is willing to do anything – no matter how barbaric – to hold onto power, but at the same time, it feels the need to show it is upholding and following the law.
The sense of relief I had expected to feel upon returning home never came.
Although my physical injuries soon started to heal and the doctor told me my damaged kidneys would repair themselves, I had trouble sleeping and was terrified of the darkness; just seeing soldiers on social media, let alone on the street, left me a wreck. I felt unable to tell my family, including my wife, the full story of what had happened. After a few months I decided to get tested for sexually transmitted infections, so I went alone, in secret.
Frontier had stopped publishing temporarily in October to make it easier for us to quietly leave the country. The plan was to resume in December but after my arrest they decided to wait, and eventually relaunched in January this year. After my release, I stopped communicating with Frontier so that the authorities wouldn’t arrest me. But once articles were going up on the website again, the Sanchaung police started to call me regularly – perhaps around twice a month – to say Frontier was damaging the reputation of the military and that I would have to face the consequences.
Unable to work for Frontier, or even contact my colleagues, I had little to keep me occupied; inevitably, I could think about little else than what the soldiers had done to me. The guilt of having potentially put others at risk by returning to Myanmar also weighed on me.
I soon started to think about ending my life. I felt like I had no future, nothing to look forward to. Most of all I felt alone.
For months I struggled on. Then, in April, I told my wife that I had been raped. This helped immediately – finally, someone else knew what I had been through. It wasn’t always at the front of my mind.
Nevertheless, I was still in a bad way. The only thing I wanted was to get out of the country, but I was in a bind. Although I didn’t feel safe in Myanmar with the authorities seemingly watching my every step, trying to leave again seemed like such a risk.
Eventually I decided to try to go back to Thailand. As per the terms of the agreement, I informed the Sanchaung Township police station. It was unclear whether I would be allowed to leave, and I was terrified they would arrest me again when I went through the airport.
Travelling alone on June 6, I passed through immigration without a problem and soon landed in Bangkok. My family joined me later the same day on a separate flight.
Why did they let me go? Why did they let me leave last year, and then arrest me when I returned a few months later? The regime’s decision-making is opaque and seemingly erratic. The police officer from Sanchaung told me they had let some other junta opponents leave, including known members of the Civil Disobedience Movement. Perhaps they just thought it was easier if I was out of the country.
Regardless, we were now finally free of the regime, and this time I really did start to feel better. Since arriving in Bangkok, Frontier have been providing me with access to regular counselling and continued treatment for my physical injuries.
But the trauma of my experience is always present, and deciding whether to write about it was difficult. I was sure that soldiers routinely used sexual violence against both men and women during interrogation, but also knew that most victims would not want to speak up – either because they had (like me) been forced to sign an agreement, they were worried about the stigma, or both. Part of me also wanted to stay silent about what had happened.
The military has a particular sensitivity to allegations of sexual violence and nearly always denies that such incidents took place. If faced with incontrovertible evidence, it blames a rogue soldier or soldiers and has insisted for decades there is no institutional pattern. I decided to write this because I wanted the world to know that the use of sexual violence is indeed routine, even if it meant reliving my experience over and over again. I also chose to write under my name, rather than anonymously, to encourage other survivors to come forward about what they experienced.
I believe that the use of rape and other forms of sexual abuse is not just a torture method designed to get information out of detainees. The soldiers see the people as their enemies and inflict sexual violence as a form of punishment, and to show that they have the power to do whatever they want. I think this attitude comes right from the top of the military, from Min Aung Hlaing himself. They know the people despise them, and violence and fear are the only tools they have left to maintain power.
Ye Mon was born in Yangon and has been a journalist since 2011. He continues to report for Frontier.
Original Post: Frontier Myanmar