In Myanmar, house arrest looks good,0,6344467,full.story

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is a breakthrough, but about 2,200 people — activists, writers, musicians and comedians — remain in prison on political charges, facing torture, inadequate medical care and years in solitary confinement.

In the decaying lakeside mansion where Aung San Suu Kyi spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, the Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel laureate was forbidden to use the Internet or the telephone or to watch satellite TV.

She did, however, have two maids, was free to read newspapers and listen to radio, and had access to a doctor.

For the other 2,200 or so political prisoners in Myanmar, conditions are quite different.

Sentenced to impossibly long prison terms for speaking out against the repressive military government, they face torture, barely edible food, little or no medical care and years in solitary confinement. Some are forbidden to speak for years.

“There’s a great difference between prison and house arrest,” said Phyo Min Thein, an opposition politician and brother-in-law of a political prisoner serving a 65-year sentence. “Aung San Suu Kyi was treated well, while those in prison are treated with extreme oppression. Is it fair? Everything isn’t fair. We live under an unfair system.”

Before and after her release, Suu Kyi vowed to spotlight the plight and press for the release of other political prisoners in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

For hundreds of activists who have openly challenged military rule, there’s little hope of fair treatment at the hands of a clique of generals that has remained largely impervious to international condemnation, pressure or sanctions.

The “crimes” prosecuted by the regime include demonstrating, passing on rumors, “undermining the state” and possessing uncensored videotapes. Those who have been jailed include comedians, musicians, artists and a writer convicted of inserting a message in a Valentine’s Day poem.

For many, the decades-long sentences are abstract numbers, their release dependent more on a political deal or a hoped-for change in government than in serving out their time.

“There’s a signboard inside with the length of your sentence,” said Phyo Min Thein, who served 15 years for opposing the regime, including five during which he wasn’t allowed to talk. “My first five years, I hoped for freedom. After that, you just have to live.”

One of the toughest challenges is staying mentally fit. The lack of news, human contact or contact with loved ones eats away at you, former prisoners and family members said, deepening your isolation.

“You become more hungry for information than for food,” Min Ko Naing, a leader of the student movement that rose up against the regime in 1988 who is serving a 65-year sentence, once said.

Some described small acts of defiance: hiding a banned book by Suu Kyi in a hole carved out of the floor under a chamber pot, smuggling out appeals to the United Nations or singing protest songs, even if it meant severe punishment or years added to their sentence.

In 2008, the regime transferred many prisoners to remote sites, making family visits more difficult.

“Before 2008, I visited him twice,” said a relative of prisoner Ko Ko Gyi, who is serving a 65-year sentence for, among other charges, illegal use of the telephone system. “But since then I haven’t. It’s a long way.”

Former prisoners said they tried to stay sharp by singing, reciting Buddhist verses, playing mental games and meditating. Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest Nov. 14, said she drew strength from dawn meditation sessions.

“Some people go mad talking to themselves,” Phyo Min Thein said. “You start imagining you see your mother in front of you.”

Family visits, when they’re permitted, may be limited to an hour or two a month, with guards hovering.

Some of the detainees are sentenced to more than century in prison, and in Myanmar, political prisoners are rarely released for good behavior. U Khun Htun Oo, 67, a political representative of the Shan ethnic minority in failing health, received 93 years in 2005 for a private discussion about political transition.

Human rights groups say their estimate of 2,200 political detainees in Myanmar is probably conservative, because many in rural areas go uncounted. Periodically the government declares an amnesty, although criminals are the main beneficiaries. In 2008, it released 9,000 people; eight were political activists.

“And they know they can re-arrest you any time; they play games,” said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners (Burma), a Thailand-based activist group. “Aung San Suu Kyi can definitely be arrested again soon. Now the military regime is trying to find an accusation against her.”

In fact, many believe it’s a matter of time before the defiant leader is detained again by generals threatened by her popularity and vocal appeals for democracy.

Some former prisoners surmise that her release has served the government’s interests by deflecting attention from rigged elections held a week earlier, but that once the inner circle led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe feels threatened anew, it will find a pretext to lock her up again.

The regime maintains the outward appearance of following laws, replete with formal charges, witnesses and legal representation, when in fact many verdicts are decided by a few powerful people, said David Mathieson, Myanmar researcher with the activist group Human Rights Watch.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Thant Kyaw, denied last month that politics played a part in the convictions. “There are no political prisoners in Myanmar, and no individual has been incarcerated simply for his or her political beliefs,” he told a U.N. committee.

Families disagree, saying that the food in Myanmar’s 44 prisons and at least 50 labor camps is often bad because corrupt officials pocket the budget, with rice gruel at breakfast, rice and watery bean soup at lunch and a thin vegetable soup at dinner.

And prisoners deemed “troublemakers” face years in solitary confinement, they say, and torture sessions that include kneeling for hours, severe beatings for moving, being suspended by the wrists and water torture.

Conditions varied depending on the prison. A former inmate of Insein Prison said he spent five years in an 8-by-12-foot room that housed up to seven people. Prisoners were given 15 minutes a day to clean out their waste and wash themselves, using a plate, not a bowl.

“It’s very difficult to bathe with a plate,” he said.

Family members say their relatives eventually become inured.

During Htay Kywe’s first prison sentence, his father died, leaving him quite depressed. During his second sentence, during which his mother died, he took personal setbacks in stride, relatives said.

“They never tell us about torture, they don’t want us to worry,” said a relative of husband-and-wife student protesters Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. “Frankly, we don’t want to know either. It would only make things harder.”

Many relatives said that though they’re happy for Suu Kyi, they hope political change will ease their family’s plight.

“I hope Ko Ko Gyi gets pardoned,” said a relative. “His two nieces are growing up without knowing him. We all really miss him.”

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