Bangkok, Thailand — Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be a prisoner of conscience for a few days in the Burmese military junta's infamous Insein prison? The military authorities confine you in an undersized cell, 8.5 by 11.5 feet, with only a bamboo mat on the concrete floor. Sleeping, eating, walking and going to the bathroom are all done in the same place.
You cannot see the sun, the moon or the stars. You are intentionally barred from breathing fresh air, eating nutritious food and drinking pure water. Books, periodicals, radio and television are out of the question. If you get sick, no medical worker will check on you until you have lost consciousness.
Under such harsh conditions, Zaw Myint Maung, an experienced physician who never committed even a small crime, has been languishing in prison for nearly two decades. As a one-time cell mate of his, each moment I think about his situation in the junta's atrocious dungeon, I feel uneasy.
It was 1994, in the cell compound of the infamous Insein Prison. I was in cell No. 10 of cell block No. 3 with Zaw Myint Maung, a healthy and handsome man of short stature with tan skin. He was very kind and helpful not only to inmates, but also to wardens and prison officers, who consulted him in health matters. Because of his calm, warm manner as an experienced medical doctor, the prison staff paid him respect behind the military intelligence officers’ backs.
Hence, he managed to form a medical assistance committee in prison, smuggling medicines and disposable syringes into prison cells. He treated his fellow inmates’ various sicknesses and even did minor surgeries with the help of the wardens who respected him. Many wardens regarded the doctor as their health consultant in those days.
A graduate from the Mandalay Institute of Medicine in 1979, he became head physician of Ywar-thit-kyi District Hospital in Sgaing Division in 1982. He worked in the biochemistry department of the Mandalay Institute of Medicine for eight years. During the 1988 People's Uprising, he was elected secretary of the Mandalay Doctors' Association.
Then he became a member of the National League for Democracy and was later elected as a member of Parliament from Mandalay’s Amarapura township in 1990. After the junta refused to honor the election results, he and some members of Parliament held secret meetings to find a political way out. As a result, Zaw Myint Maung was arrested on Nov. 22 and put on trial for allegedly participating in meetings to form a parallel government. He was charged with treason against the nation and sentenced to 25 years in prison at a military tribunal with no legal representation.
He has been languishing in the junta's hellish prison for 18 years, or one-third of his life. While in Insein Prison, he underwent many interrogations by intelligence officials about his views on the military regime and political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. The authorities tried to persuade him to collaborate with them, but they could not win over his strong political aspiration of building a democratic Burma. As a staunch supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, he is on the top of the junta's blacklist.
I remember one noteworthy vision of the doctor. He said, “Democracy is on the march around the world, including Burma. But we need commitment to work selflessly with grassroots people until the day that a free Burma emerges. The struggle for freedom may need more time. But it will not be beyond measure. It’s a war between the just and unjust. The just will prevail at last."
In 1995, fellow political prisoners from various organizations actively worked to collect valid facts and figures on human rights abuses experienced in prison, for a report to be sent to the United Nations on the situation of human rights in Burma. Zaw Myint Maung was one of the coordinators of this effort.
On July 15, 1995, the report, "Human Rights Abuses in the Junta's Prisons," together with a petition of over 100 political prisoners, was successfully smuggled out. Within weeks, the report was sent to Yozo Yokota, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Burma.
The release of both the report and the petition hurt the junta’s image and made the generals extremely angry. Consequently, the prison cell compound was searched, and many inmates were thrown into dark cells and interrogated while being deprived of food and sleep.
Zaw Myint Maung was one of 24 political prisoners who were given further prison sentences on March 28, 1996, in connection with their circulation of news journals within the prison and their efforts to report human rights violations to the United Nations. The doctor was alleged to have written politically agitating poems and to have signed a petition for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
During the investigation, he and seven others, including U Win Tin, a famous journalist and senior member of the NLD, were held in cells designed for military dogs, made to sleep on concrete floors without bedding during winter and left without food and water.