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Memory of Myanmar: Look backward, move forward

PHOE WA The Myanmar Times sat,DECember 2019

U Soe Hlaing, a former political prisoner and a victim of torture shares about his experience at the Memory of Myanmar Event at Kafe in Town, November 17,2019. Photo: AAPP

Jail inflicted a lot of mental wounds on us,” U Soe Naing said as his voice wavered with emotion. The 50-year-old is a former political prisoner of the 1988 generation, and was given a 23-year prison sentence for his activism.

He is part of a group of former dissidents who suffered at the hands of the military dictatorship, and an utterly corrupt justice system. They gathered at Kafe in Town on November 17 to commemorate a similar uprising that occurred on the other side of the globe thirty years ago – the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic.

Unlike the popular uprising in Myanmar, the Velvet Revolution resulted in the peaceful transition from a one-party state to a democracy.

The Czech Embassy in Myanmar commemorated the event, which signaled the end of Soviet rule in many other countries across eastern Europe, with a stunning photographic exhibition subtitled “The End of Totalitarian Rule in Czechoslovakia”.

Keen to preserve the values of freedom and non-violent cooperation, the Embassy also released a publication called “Memory of Myanmar, Moving Forward, Looking Backward” to honor those who were not so fortunate in Myanmar during the 1988 uprising, sacrificing what little freedom they had for the ideal of democratic rule.

The publication was produced in collaboration with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), and is accessible on the Memory of Nations EU website. The website also links to the AAPP’s 2014 report The Systematic Use of Torture by Totalitarian Regimes in Burma and the Experiences of Political Prisoners.

“We want the people and government to know how the tortures took place, how widespread it was, so that it can be stopped and never be allowed to happen again,” Zaw Moe, head of research at AAPP, said.

According to the report, there has been between 8,000 and 10,000 political prisoners in Myanmar since 1962, with many associated with the 1988 protests, and a smaller wave following after the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Dissidents from ethnic groups are also included in this number who have been arrested and detained for opposing government ideologies or unjust edicts. During imprisonment, the use of torture techniques to extract confessions and further degrade and humiliate detainees was commonplace in Myanmar.

The report details the various types of abuse that took place, and allegedly still takes place, in prisons across the country. Guards would burn parts of the body with cigarettes or hot irons, as well as keep the prisoners in stress positions for long periods of time. Introducing poisonous or feral animals into jail cells was also practiced which, combined with sleep deprivation and physical punishment, caused many fatalities.

“If a pig dies accidently, the jail staff have to send a letter to explain the death. But if it was one of us who died they did nothing. We were treated worse than pigs in that place,” said U Soe Naing.

The report also compares international and local laws regarding treatment in prison.

According to the AAPP’s website, and as of October 2019, there are still a total of 612 political prisoners in Myanmar, with 59 currently serving time in jails or detention centres across the country. A further 181 people are facing trial inside the country, and 372 living in exile.

These numbers are a far cry from the days of the harsh military rule, even up until just a few years ago, but it is still 612 too many, according to U Soe Naing.

The “Memory of Myanmar” project seeks to support the democratisation of Myanmar by conserving the oral memories of key witnesses like U Soe Naing who personally experienced the country’s past times of oppression as political prisoners.

These testimonies will serve as an audiovisual archive to prevent that knowledge from falling into oblivion, making sure that future generations will be able to understand these events, to gain inspiration and to learn how to prevent similar situations from happening again.

An edited part of these videos will also be made available with translations on the online platform “Memory of Nations” and as a documentary. The one-year project is planned as a pilot for subsequent activities that would extend the group of witnesses to a larger group.

“We need to be able to look back on the rawness of the past to sculpt a beautiful future. This is why we are so keen to promote the Memory of Myanmar project,” said U Tate Naing, secretary of AAPP.


From: The Myanmar Times (MYANMAR) sat,DECember 2019

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