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Former political prisoners counsel victims of torture in Myanmar

Country left 'traumatized' by 50 years of harsh military rule
Former political prisoners counsel victims of torture in Myanmar

Scars on a Rohingya man's back are shown to rights workers in Bangkok. The man allegedly received the scars after being beaten by a Myanmar soldier (AFP Photo/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul)

Published: September 18, 2014 09:22 AM GMT
Updated: September 17, 2014 10:23 PM GMT

Student activist Saw Thet Thun was arrested twice – in 1991 and 1999 – and spent nearly 20 years in prison before being released in 2007.

Speaking to Karen News, he recalls some of the horrors that he and his fellow prisoners faced in those years.

“The biggest hardship was being tortured. The prison authorities would treat us as less than human, like dogs. They beat us, transferred us far away from our families and would not let us read or write.”

Now working at Burma’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) in Yangon, which was founded in 2000, Saw Thet Thun helps ex-political prisoners get back on their feet.

A key aspect of AAPP’s assistance programs is a counseling service for torture victims. Established in 2013 with just 10 counselors, the program now has 24 counselors and treats more than 300 people in Yangon and Mandalay.

Many former political prisoners, having faced torture and abuse at the hands of prison authorities while being locked away in one of the country’s notorious prisons, were haunted by their experiences. Saw Thet Thun said this had left the country deeply scarred. “Our society has been traumatized by 50 years of military rule so we need counseling mechanisms and support services for our people.”

With the assistance of John Hopkins University, and with funding from the United States government, the AAPP is looking to expand the program to all victims of torture, not just ex-prisoners.

“Our focus is to counsel victims of torture. Until now we could only assist former political prisoners and their family members. Now we will focus on victims of torture. We also want to assist their families. For example, what if your daughter/son/spouse was a victim of torture? You would feel terrible. They need support too.”

Htin Aung and Khin Nyein Chan Soe, counsellors in AAPP's new program for victims of torture (Photo: Karen news)


Khin Nyein Chan Soe, a co-supervisor of the program, said that counseling was a new concept in Burma.

“Many people are suspicious about counseling – it is a very new concept for our country. Often those being counseled won’t even tell their families or they often say ‘we are strong, we don’t need counseling, we are not crazy.’ But they don’t realize that they are traumatized – and that this is affecting their life.”

Khin Nyein Chan Soe said that AAPP counselors were dealing with severe cases of psychological trauma. “Sometimes they don’t want to talk to anyone, or go out of their house – they are severely traumatized. Most of them have been tortured by Military Intelligence. They experienced beatings in interrogation centers, were not allowed to eat or sleep for as long as one week, some were forced to drink toilet water and were threatened with being killed.”

Khin Nyein Chan Soe said that AAPP staff had seen marked improvements in their clients following the 12-week counseling program.

“At first, some clients can’t even talk about their experiences – daily life can be very hard for them. They can suffer panic attacks and nightmares. But after the 12 weeks the clients have reported improved sleeping, feeling calmer and not as depressed. If there are continued issues then we can refer them to a psychiatric team who can provide them with medication.”

The AAPP maintained that the counseling program was especially important now because Burma’s reformist government, led by President U Thein Sein, was still arresting activists.

Continuing crackdown on dissenters

International human rights organizations also continue to document the imprisonment of political activists, in spite of promises by the president that all political prisoners would be released by 2013. The government maintains that those arrested are criminals, not political activists.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said that Burma’s government was misusing criminal laws to jail political activists. “We’re very concerned that Burma’s authorities are charging activist critics willy-nilly, with whatever provisions of the penal code that they think they can fit to the situation. This is deepening the lack of rule of law crisis that is engulfing Burma, as politically and economically powerful persons use the law as they like to silence anyone who criticizes them,” Robertson said in an interview with Karen News last month.

He said the situation was reminiscent of the clampdowns seen under Burma’s previous military regime. “The problem is government officials and the police frequently press politically trumped up charges to arrest activists, and they get away with it because of Burma’s politically compliant judiciary which is still acting like it did under the days of military administration.”

The AAPP estimated that there were at least 70 political activists in prisons across the country, with as many as a further 200 awaiting sentencing.

HRW notes that Burma’s government has arrested at least eight journalists since December 2013.

Saw Thet Thun said that because of the ongoing arrests, the AAPP could not rely on the government for support. “The government should take responsibility for this. But we cannot wait or rely on the government.”

The two-year program, which is currently set to finish in 2015 depending on funding, could expand into the country’s prison system only if the government gave permission, Saw Thet Thun said.

“Now we have funding, we have technical support, we have the counselors but the main problem is the government. They do not want us to go into the prisons. Technically this is an ‘illegal’ program because the government does not recognize the AAPP. They could arrest us any time.”

Htin Aung, a supervisor of the program, spoke of how the AAPP counselors had a special insight into the traumas suffered by victims of torture, having faced it themselves as former political prisoners.

“We are ex-prisoners, we can understand very well about life in prison.”

Khin Nyein Chan Soe, the daughter of a former political prisoner, also felt a connection with her clients.

“One of the most important things is that we can share our personal experiences with our clients and relate with them. We are former political prisoners ourselves, or our family members were. My father was in prison for 27 years. We want [these people] to have hope.”


Full Story: Former Political Prisoners Counsel Burma’s Victims of Torture

Source:Karen News

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