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Myanmar

Fear and trauma haunt Myanmar’s freed political prisoners

Former political prisoners suffer from depression, mental illness and fear of being rearrested

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: November 16, 2021 10:17 AM GMT

Updated: November 16, 2021 10:23 AM GMT

Fear and trauma haunt Myanmar’s freed political prisoners

Police in riot gear storm a rally in Myanmar's largest city Yangon on May 7. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)

Political prisoners in Myanmar, released under a general amnesty by the military junta last month, continue to suffer from physical and psychological illnesses due to torture and abuse by security forces, media reports say.

In addition to depression, many also live in fear of rearrest and detention.

Myanmar's military released 4,230 people facing trial for participating in pro-democracy protests against the Feb. 1 military coup. However, some 100 political prisoners were rearrested and taken into custody shortly after, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Some detainees, mostly young people, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) Myanmar Service that their haunting experience in detention left them severely traumatized and they are no longer able live a normal life at home.     

Ko Thaw, 20, from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, had been arrested on March 3 for joining an anti-coup protest. He was released three weeks later, on March 24. But he was rearrested on the same day with the authorities accusing him of “defaming” the military.

He said that before his release on Oct. 18 he was severely beaten during interrogation about his alleged crimes.

When I covered my face, about 15 of them beat me all over my body, kicking me in the neck and back

“They tore my shirt off … and then hit me on the chest and arms with batons. When I covered my face, about 15 of them beat me all over my body, kicking me in the neck and back,” Ko Thaw told RFA.

“They hadn’t even questioned me about anything yet. They just beat me up.”

He said that over the next few days his captors grilled him about his “connections” and attempted to establish his complicity in other crimes never committed.

Ko Thaw recalled that while in prison he saw some men with deep cuts to their necks. Despite being imprisoned for about a month, they were never given any medicine.

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“I did not suffer as much as they did, but it upset me terribly,” he said.

Restlessness and fear continue to plague Ko Thaw.

“I can’t eat or sleep well because I am constantly wondering when will they come back for me,” he said. “Sometimes, when I want to do something as simple as go out shopping, my thoughts haunt me and I question whether I will be safe.”

Another pro-democracy activist, Yin Yin, 24, also from Yangon, was arrested on March 3 for participating in a protest. She was detained in infamous Insein Prison on defamation charges before her release on Oct. 18 on amnesty.

She says that she lives in “constant fear” that she will be arrested again. Whenever she goes somewhere, she feels someone might be following her, and she often asks herself if it was safe to go there.

“As there have been several cases of rearrests, I worry all the time that they will come after me … Even though I’m at home now, I don’t feel like it at all. When I wake up in the mornings, it takes some time before I realize that I’m in my own bed. I still have nightmares as if I am still in prison,” she told RFA.

Ko Thaw and Yin Yin also said they continue to suffer from debilitating anxiety but have no one to turn to for help.

Women are often sexually harassed. Men are asked personal questions about their sex lives. These kinds of questions are meant to damage their psyche

Former detainees also said that they experienced how the security forces physically and mentally abused prisoners.

“Women are often sexually harassed. Men are asked personal questions about their sex lives. These kinds of questions are meant to damage their psyche,” said Nang Lin, a member of Takatha Students' Union.

“They are mentally tortured by their captors, who interrogate them about things that have nothing to do with the charges against them. It is inhuman.” 

Some detainees suffer from long-term physical injuries.

Myanmar Now reported that prominent political activist Kyaw Min Yu, popularly known as Ko Jimmy, was in a critical condition after suffering a head injury while being arrested in Yangon. He spent three days in the intensive care unit of a military hospital. He was then transferred to an undisclosed location.

Kyaw Min Yu is a former leader of the 88 student movement that led a democracy uprising in August 1988 against a military regime that had ruled the country since 1962. The current regime accused him of defamation and he also faces six new charges including treason, terrorism and planned attacks on the junta.

Only you know what you are dealing with, so go see an expert when you are haunted by these experiences

His wife, Nilar Thein, said at that time that she was “expecting the worst-case scenario” because he was in the custody of soldiers.

“We have seen in the past that many people who were arrested either died or were left with serious lifelong trauma because they were severely tortured,” she said. “We have prepared ourselves for everything, mentally as well.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Tin Oo says that people who suffered custodial abuses need to seek professional care to get over their agony.

“People with these kinds of experiences can suffer extreme mental trauma and if this happens, they should see a counseling expert when they are freed from prison,” he said.

“Only you know what you are dealing with, so go see an expert when you are haunted by these experiences.”

Following a short stint with democracy from 2015 to January 2021, Myanmar returned to military rule following the Feb. 1 coup.

Bangkok-based AAPP says 1,253 civilians have been killed and at least 7,144 arrested since then, with many deaths and arrests occurring during a violent crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

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