A protest by detainees at a prison in southern Myanmar that led to a deadly crackdown last week was sparked in part by preparations for the execution of a schoolteacher, Radio Free Asia has learned.
The revelation sheds new light on the cause of the incident at Pathein prison in the Ayeyarwady region, the latest in a series of more than 15 violent crackdowns on protests by political prisoners – dubbed “riots” by authorities – in the nearly two years since the army seized power in a coup.
On the night of January 5, guards discovered a mobile phone in the possession of 33-year-old Wai Yan Phyo, a prisoner of conscience serving 28 years for participating in an anti-coup protest, sources with prison knowledge and others who have held political prisoners in prison. facility, told RFA last week.
After the discovery, guards took Wai Yan Phyo — also known as Yar Su — and two other inmates from their cells and beat them all night before returning them the next morning, the sources said.
RFA originally reported that when the three men explained to their fellow inmates what had happened to them and demanded they be released, the authorities refused, prompting protests from other inmates.
But on Wednesday, relatives of political prisoners at Pathein Prison told RFA that, in addition to frustration at the way guards were treating the trio, the protest was also motivated by preparations for the execution of a schoolteacher who had been sentenced to death by hanging at the complicated . Details of the teacher’s case were not immediately clear.
Guards responded by beating and opening fire on the demonstrators. Wai Yan Phyo was hit in the head by three bullets and died on the spot.
Nearly 70 prisoners suffered gunshot wounds and other injuries, including Pho La Pyae, Win Min Htet, Soe Yu Kyaw, Wai Zaw Lat, Aung Tun Myint, Kyaw Ye Aung, Ye Thway Ni and an eighth man to be identified. left in critical condition. Win Min Htet, 31, also known as Mae Gyi, later succumbed to his injuries, according to former political prisoners with knowledge of the situation at Pathein Prison.
A relative of Wai Yan Phyo told RFA on Wednesday that only his mother was allowed to see his body before officials cremated it.
“In the cemetery, the prison authorities showed his mother [only] his injuries from the beating,” the relative said. “They tried to prove to her that there were no gunshot wounds.”
According to the relative, even Wai Yan Phyo’s wife was not allowed to see his body before cremation. His ashes were returned to the family, the relative said.
‘Chickens in a Cage’
A former political prisoner serving time at Pathein Prison compared prisoners in prison to “chickens in a cage” with no rights.
“[The guards] can do whatever they want with them at any time,” the former prisoner said.
“Inmates’ safety must be the number one priority in prison. This is also one of the prison wards [stated] goals,” he said. “They are solely responsible for the safety and life of the prisoners.”
Several calls from the RFA for comment from Naing Win, the spokesman for the junta’s prison branch, went unanswered on Wednesday.
A junta statement on January 6 referred to the prison protest as a “riot” caused by troublesome inmates. It said about 70 inmates smashed a door leading from their cell block to an adjoining courtyard and attacked authorities, injuring 2 police officers and 9 prison guards. It acknowledged the death of one inmate, whom it said was “killed by fellow inmates”, and said 63 others were injured.
A former prison guard, who declined to be named for security reasons, told RFA last week’s protest turned deadly as officials chose not to handle the mobile phone discovery in accordance with the law.
“In hindsight, if they had handled the cell phone discovery peacefully and in accordance with the law, there is no reason why this would have happened,” he said. “But because they mishandled the problem, the incident spiraled out of control.”
Gathering evidence of a ‘war crime’
An official from Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said incidents like the one at Pathein Prison “occur in prisons across the country”, suggesting that the military regime “maliciously targets and oppresses political prisoners”.
He also called the beating, shooting and killing of prisoners in no position to resist “a cruel and inhumane act”, adding that the officials responsible for the incident “will one day have to face the consequences to see”.
At least 13,360 people have been detained on political grounds since Myanmar’s coup d’état on February 1, 2021, of whom 1,937 have been sentenced to prison terms, according to the AAPP.
Myanmar’s shadow government of National Unity called the crackdown a “war crime” on Wednesday, telling RFA that the Human Rights Ministry is gathering evidence to prosecute prison officials.
“This incident has been accurately reported to the United Nations and all human rights monitoring groups,” said Aung Myo Min, the NGG’s human rights minister. “While no sentence has yet been imposed, we will continue to hold prison department officials as gravely responsible for this crime as those who commit the military’s war crimes.”
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.