Myanmar’s military coup that took place nearly four months ago has sparked outrage nationwide, with thousands of pro-democracy protesters taking to the streets and going on strike in resistance.
But in retaliation, armed forces have violently cracked down on demonstrators, leaving hundreds dead and thousands detained.
Insein Prison is one of Myanmar’s most notorious jails,, with a history of inhumane conditions and treatment. Since the coup, hundreds of political prisoners are being held there, with some tortured during interrogation at the hands of authorities, according to released prisoners.
Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi recently spent over a month at Insein after being arrested by the junta, who first claimed he violated immigration law and then accused him of an illegal video purchase.
He spent his time in an isolated cell at Insein, in what he described as a “VIP building,” among a handful of political prisoners. More than 100 other prisoners, however, were crammed into a single room where it was difficult to move.
Knife or gun?
“Most of the political prisoners were tortured in the military compound, [the] military institute," where fellow inmates suffered abuse while blindfolded throughout intake interrogations, said Kitazumi. “They did not do that inside Insein Prison.
“One man was asked to choose: knife or a gun?” Kitazumi said. “He chooses a gun. And then the interrogator points to his head very close and makes the interrogation.”
Released unharmed and flown back to Tokyo earlier this month, Kitazumi, who credits nationality for his freedom, also said prisoners were forced to eat from the concrete floor with hands cuffed behind their backs.
"Sometimes [they were] hit by a stick when they denied a question," he said. "They continued for a very long time — for two days or three days.”
Thousands in custody
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 4,000 pro-democracy activists remain detained following the coup.
Ko Bo Kyi, an AAPP founder, told VOA that at least 400 political prisoners were being held at Insein, which he described as overcrowded, holding at least 10,000 inmates. But Kyaw Htun Oo, deputy director of Myanmar's Prison Department, denied allegations of overcrowding, citing the prison's COVID-19-free status as evidence.
VOA was not able to independently verify whether the prison community was free of COVID-19 cases.
When VOA asked how many prisoners were being held, the security director said he didn’t have permission to answer, but that the prison has a 7,000-inmate capacity, and that all prisoners are treated the same and no abuse takes place.
But abuses can occur, “maybe in the interrogation center,” Htun Oo voluntarily allowed.
A Myanmar lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation told VOA abuse appears to occur immediately following the arrests, most of which are carried out under section 505(a) of the penal code, which prohibits disruption of government operations or making statements that could arouse fear.
"When they do interrogation, we heard they do torture,” he told VOA, explaining that things typically improve for inmates once they are moved to the prison itself.
"It is fine in the prisons," he said. "I know it because my son is also detained now."
Zay Yar Lwin, an activist and former president of the Yangon University of Economics student union, was incarcerated at Insein in 2019 and released in April. He said the prison infrastructure has improved but that prisoner treatment depends on the day-to-day mood of prison officers.
While in jail, he told VOA, he met Australian Sean Turnell, a former economic policy adviser to Myanmar’s ousted democratic government and the first foreign national to be arrested amid the coup.
Turnell, who remains behind bars, faced a grueling intake procedure.
“During the interrogation, he stayed in the room covered with aluminum. They showed Sean a big light for 24 hours, and asked him questions for two weeks,” said Yar Lwin, referring to an interrogation technique in which harsh lights are aimed directly into the detainee's eyes.
But Yar Lwin said the Australian has since been allowed to watch television news and read books sent from his family.
In recent days, authorities detained American journalist Danny Fenster, who had been working for Frontier Myanmar magazine. The U.S State Department has demanded his release.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar gained independence in 1948 from Britain, but was mostly under military rule until 2011, when the military junta was dissolved, making way for a military-sanctioned transitional government that ushered in numerous popular democratic reforms.
The military contested the results of last November’s general elections, making unsubstantiated claims of fraud. On February 1, the Myanmar military removed the National League for Democracy government, detaining leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.
The British built Insein Prison in 1887 and it has been the subject of controversy since the military seized power following a popular uprising in 1988. There were reports at the time that prisoners faced unsanitary conditions and torture, sometimes prompting hunger strikes. Suu Kyi was held there three times.