I’ve asked around about this article. No one I know can verify this, the name, or details. Yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not authentic.
Mae Sot, Thailand – Soe Lwin is a slightly nervous, neatly dressed Burmese refugee waiting in the Thai border town of Mae Sot for a better life. There is nothing unusual in that. Every year, hundreds of Burmese arrive in this town from across the border seeking work or fleeing conflict or persecution.
But the 29-year-old Soe Lwin has the air of somebody who has experienced more in his short lifetime than most, a bitter life story––hard to tell.
He says he is learning English at a school in the town, seeking to catch up on the education he never had. His youth was wrestled from him by the Burmese authorities seeking to nip any signs of political dissent in the bud.
For Soe Lwin, the nightmare began when he was 13. It was the early morning of April 24, 1994, and he was living with his family and going to school in the Launglon Township, Dawei District in Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) Division in Burma.
He remembers it as if it were yesterday.
It was 4:30 in the morning when he was woken by a knock on the door and his father answered.
‘There were about five people who came into the house, but when I was taken outside of the house, I saw a car parked on the road and maybe five or six motorbikes’, he says. ‘I didn’t see how many people there were because they put a hood over my head and my hands were handcuffed behind me’.
Soe Lwin had had a run in with the military authorities just months before. He and two friends had been arrested in November 1993 and detained for three months for delivering anti-establishment material. His parents, relatives and friends had managed to bargain for his release, saying he had to take his exams and that they would look after him. During those three months of detention he had no contact with his family. He was released in February 1994.
This time it was different.
Soe Lwin was locked up in the local military intelligence interrogation centre for 45 days. During the day he was held in a cell. In the night he was taken out to be interrogated. He did not hear or see any of his 14 friends, seven boys and seven girls, who had also been arrested, and only realized they had been arrested when he saw them later in court. The girls suffered interrogation but were released.
He keeps a check on his emotions as he relates what happened to him. He says he was subjected to multiple forms of torture. During the beatings, two of his ribs were broken, and he lost the hearing in his right ear. In the efforts to extract information, needles were pushed under his fingernails.
‘This was for 45 days … I was tortured in so many ways’, he says. ‘One of my friends died in the interrogation centre’.
The military intelligence officials in the interrogation centre were trying to extract information from Soe Lwin about his father, an activist who had previously been arrested for political activities. His mother, a teacher, had also been arrested and detained for two years in 1992 for singing a song to her students that the ruling State Peace and Development Council and military intelligence deemed derogatory to the military regime.
After one and a half months of interrogation, Soe Lwin and his friends were taken to court in Myeik Township, the division capital, but the judge at the court refused to accept the boys, claiming they were too badly injured to be charged. On seeing his injured son in court, Soe Lwin’s father collapsed.
The judge ordered military intelligence to take the boys directly to a hospital to be treated, but instead they were taken to prison. The prison authorities, however, also refused to accept the teenage boys, saying that they couldn’t accept children whose health was in such a bad condition.
Finally, Soe Lwin was taken to a hospital where he spent two months recovering from his injuries. It was during this time that he learned one of his friends had died during interrogation.
‘When I was at the hospital my father visited me and he told me my friend had died in the interrogation centre,’ he says. His father said his friend’s father blamed him for his son’s death.
In hospital, Soe Lwin’s family had to pay the costs of treatment, and he was under military intelligence custody with somebody checking on him every hour.
After attending court twice, only to be sent back to prison and given later appointments, Soe Lwin and his six surviving friends were not given a proper trial. Instead, on the third occasion the judge came to the main gate of the prison and sentenced all of the boys to 14 years each in prison for their distribution of material defaming the military junta.
One boy spoke out against their unfair sentence. In response, the judge added another three months to their sentence. A further 10 years was added to each of the boys’ sentences because the boys’ parents wrote appeals citing children’s rights and calling for a reduction in their sentences.
At age 13, the seven boys were sentenced to 24 years and three months in prison for illegally printing and distributing material contrary to Burma’s press law. The boys had been delivering anti-junta pamphlets and leaflets in Launglon town condemning the Burmese military regime.
Soe Lwin recounts that they were told: ‘You are ruining our motherland; you are fighting against our military regime’.
On November 24, 1994, Soe Lwin was sent from Myeik prison to Rangoon by boat to begin a five-year stretch in the notorious Insein Prison.
‘In Insein Prison we were allowed no books’, he says. ‘We were each just in solitary confinement, and then if our fathers and mothers hadn’t given us food, we would have died’.
His mother, grandmother and uncle managed to visit him once a month. At first he was in what he called ‘normal’ solitary confinement, able to hear other prisoners’ voices. But after he managed to have a book smuggled in and it was found, he was taken out of his cell and beaten by the guards. He was then moved to a section in the complex where they house and train military and police dogs, thrown into the dirty, poorly lit quarters used for housing the dogs. He was cooped up in these conditions for a year.
‘I still remember that book; it was about the American government’s and the Thai government’s military exercises’, Soe Lwin says, laughing.
In 1999, he was moved from Insein Prison to Mawlamyine Prison, and his friends were moved to various prisons around Burma.
Soe Lwin spent the rest of his sentence in Mawlamyine Prison, for the most part in solitary confinement, able to hear other prisoners and communicate with them.
After being submitted to constant verbal insults and physical violence by the prison guards, one day Soe Lwin tried to protect himself. This landed him under ‘special punishment’ with no visits from his family permitted.
‘Some of the prison guards were younger than me’, he says. ‘They were very rude … they thought we were their enemy’.
Special punishment was different than solitary confinement. ‘In solitary confinement you can hear other people. But special punishment means you cannot see the sun, the moon’, he says. For trying to defend himself, he was kept like this for eight months.
To try to keep sane, he talked to the ants. ‘Because I was so angry at the prison authorities, finally I couldn’t do anything so I talked to the ants. And sometimes I swatted the flies and I fed them to the house lizards’.
After spending 10 years in Mawlamyine Prison, on September 19, 2009, the chief jailer, the vice-director of the prison and prison guards came to Soe Lwin’s cell and asked him to go with them.
He was released and welcomed by his grandmother’s sister and other relatives at the gate of the prison.
He recalled his mother’s words to him when he was 13 that he was a man and men don’t cry. ‘Since then, I have never cried’, he says.
All of his friends who were also detained in 1994 have now been released, the most recent being in December 2010.
Immediately after his release Soe Lwin had eye surgery in Mawlamyine to correct damage sustained to his eye whilst in prison. The man he considers his foster father, Dr Min Soe Lin, also an ex-political prisoner, and who spent time with Soe Lwin in prison, carried out the eye surgery for him for free. He then returned home to Launglon.
Within a week, he and his father were again harassed by the authorities. The two had been overheard talking about selling one of their family motorbikes to obtain money to repair the road in front of their house, as it had fallen into disrepair. Soe Lwin’s father was arrested and brought home after being interrogated for a day and told that he wasn’t the government and had no rights to repair the road.
The police then came for Soe Lwin at his home.
He said he saw the handcuffs and warned the police officer not to touch him, that he would come down voluntarily to the police station and that he was not a criminal.
‘And then they didn’t let me sit, I was standing so finally I grabbed a chair and I sat on it, the police officer came to me to punch me, I told him, if you hit me, punch me, hurt me, I will retaliate, I will respond, because I am innocent’, Soe Lwin says.
‘So, they told me, you have to come to the police station every day and sign a paper, saying I am here and in town’.
That night, a relative of Soe Lwin’s who knew the township judge came to Soe Lwin’s house to tell him that the police were preparing for his arrest, and advised him to leave Launglon as soon as possible.
Soe Lwin’s family and friends pooled money together to send Soe Lwin back to Mawlamyine where he stayed for about a month. With the police closing in, he stayed in Rangoon for four days, but was again tracked by military intelligence, and had to leave again.
From Rangoon, Soe Lwin went to Mandalay to stay with a friend, but feeling alienated and nervous he felt unable to stay and fled to Myawaddy and then over the border to Mae Sot.
It was December 2009. Soe Lwin was 28 and had spent more than half his short life in prison.
In Mae Sot, he stayed with Khun Myint Tun, also an ex-political prisoner and a minister in the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (Burma’s exiled government) until he came to live and work at ExPPACT (Ex-Political Prisoners – Advocacy, Counseling and Training), an organisation that supports ex-political prisoners who have had to flee persecution in Burma.
Soe Lwin is now playing the waiting game of Burmese refugees in Thailand, waiting for an identity and the means to secure asylum in a third country. The UNHCR have told Soe Lwin they cannot provide him with protection at present and that all he can do is wait. Soe Lwin is currently learning English at a migrant school as he tries to give himself the education he was deprived of in Burma.
Asked whether he ever regretted distributing those leaflets all those years ago, Soe Lwin says, ‘What I did was right. I hoped, I believed I would leave the prison alive’.
Soe Lwin feels he is lucky because his family could afford to visit him and provide him with food. Some people die in prison from malnutrition or starvation, he says.