Author’s note: Nothing much have changed since Gen Ne Win’s junta took power in 1962 and ruled Burma with iron fist, brutality, plunder and deceit.
Hell on Earth
“For the person who has not actually witnessed atrocities, all remains hearsay and suspect; to accept the degradation of any man by man injures our self-esteem.” - EDGAR SNOW
In Burma, I was told by fellow prisoners, the sentence for murder is five years imprisonment and three years for manslaughter. A refugee or illegal immigrant faces incarceration until death unless the native country makes an effort to get the person released.
On the afternoon of March 24, 1978 I was brought into Rangoon’s Insein Central Jail from Mangladon police station near the airport, as an illegal immigrant on the way to be deported back to Malaysia. I was the lucky one whose embassy in Rangoon had requested my release.
The previous day I was flown from Keng Tung jail in the Shan State after ten months incarceration for an illegal entry offence for which I was sentenced to six months imprisonment. I was in the first stage of a slow deportation process, six months overdue.
The prison officers and guards were waiting like vultures, – a non-Burmese is coming and there was money to be made. Prior to my release from Keng Tung, a prison officer had warned me about it while trying to induce me to sell him my camera.
“How much money do you have? – Any watches, valuables? How many shirts and trousers do you have?” A warden asked eagerly.
The prisoners were at their mercy. They squeezed every penny from the prisoners, even their shirts, pants and shoes which were hard to get in Burma.
“I have 2,000 kyats, a watch and a camera,” I said.
“Where are they now?” the officer shouted.
“I gave them to the embassy for safe-keeping,” I replied. I could see they were disappointed for not being able to get anything from me.
Passing the main gate and the warden’s office into the outer prison compound I was greeted by a familiar sight – four prisoners carrying a black rectangular box on their shoulders walking by. “Do you know what that is? People die here every week. You will have a hard time,” one of the working prisoners, who doubled as clerks, work supervisors or team leaders, asked jokingly to frighten the new arrivals.
“You are lucky here,” I said. “In Keng Tung the dead don’t even have a box. They were put in a gunny sack and buried in a hole outside the prison wall.” I had seen ten prisoners died, mostly in my cell, in Keng Tung jail. I told groups of senior prisoners who were crowding around the new arrivals, that I had just come from a prison much worse than Insein. [So you can't frighten me, I'm not a 'freshie' but a 'senior' like you]
In Burmese prisons, all works like registering new arrivals, controlling the prisoners, management to manual labor were all done by the prisoners. Divide and rule – let the crooks control the crooks. The leaders were given certain power and privilege like beating the shit out of any prisoner who step out of line, extorting food from prisoners, taking a bath everyday (rather than twice a week). But at the same time the leaders could be beaten into a pulp by the wardens if they broke prison rules. The wardens hardly do any work, they watched from above like lords and kings.
At that time most of the clerical workers, cell leaders, workshop/bathing/hospital sections leaders were university students or ex-government servants and middle-rank army officers. The high rankings, I was told were incarcerated in different blocks of the sprawling jail, apart from ordinary prisoners.
Many university students were killed and hundreds jailed when they protested and hijacked the body of UN secretary-general U Thant, on 5 December 1974, when the military junta refused to give him a state funeral. I got to know them well as they loved to seek me out and talked and practiced their English with me. I could move around quite easy from different blocks where they were in charge.
Being literate and strong and steady in the head meant a lot among the worse of criminals who held education in high respect. This is particularly so in Asia and most underdeveloped countries. It was common to see a tough petty criminal brought in all muscles and brawn, being kicked and beaten by the cell leader and henchmen. Men of education or leaders of some organisation would be treated with respect. They could sense the aura of a criminal or a man of letters instantly, or that of a holy or spiritual man and treat him accordingly.
It was true that survival was in the mind – many seemingly strong muscular criminals withered after 6 months, became sickly and thin and wretched. Others became religious and prayed or occupied their time singing – most basic antidote to beat depression and survived.
The students took me to the second floor of a block, overlooking a prison courtyard and pointed to wooden scaffolding and said, “This is where they hanged our student leader, Teng Maung U on 26 July 1977. He was 24 years old. They accused him of having a pistol and collaborating with rebels,” the student said in disbelief. “I want you and the outside world to know,” he added indignantly.
I was led through the vast compound of walls and prison blocs after hours of registering and security checks. At the hospital compound which is nearest to the main gate a white man, wearing a longyi and shirtless, suddenly rushed forward, grasped my hand and introduced himself as Erwin Reiter from Austria.
News, that a Malaysian had entered the jail, had spread quickly. Erwin the only white man in this hell-hole was happy he could speak to a non-Burmese in English. He said he had not converse in English for three years.
“Don’t stay in the prison blocks they are putting you in, you’re going to die there,” he advised. “Register yourself as a sick patient first thing tomorrow morning and get admitted into the hospital. The hospital is the place you can survive, not in those cells,” he gestured towards the mass of ugly concrete and granite blocks.
“Don’t give a damn about these bastards, they are inhuman, they are not valid as a people. If I have a gun, I’ll shoot them all dead. Don’t be intimidated and be bullied by them. Kick them back and they will leave you alone,” he spurted out in furious torrent.
I learned later that Reiter was arrested at the Bangladesh-Burma border and sentenced to six months for illegal entry. That was three years ago. His release was two-and-half years overdue. He was on the verge of going crazy. He had taken kerosene to commit suicide but in vain. It made him very sick for three weeks, he said.
He asked me several times whether he should climb up to the roof and stay there until they set him free. My advice was a big no! They will shoot you down like a dead duck or they’ll do nothing and eventually let you’ll fall dead. And no one outside Burma would know, I said.
Like Keng Tung jail, Insein was filled with bugs, lies and filth made worst by the hot humid
climate and the mass of wretched humanity over-crowding it. The food given was the same as Kengtung Jail.
First meal at ten in the morning consisted of a plate of stale broken rice that had been stock-piled for many years or low grade broken rice, a bowl of yellow pea (lentil) boiled in water and spoonful of saltish shrimp paste (ngapi). The last meal at 4 pm was even worse. Instead of pea soup, prisoners were given a bowl of radish leaves boiled in water.
Once a week, on Wednesday, prisoners were given a piece of pork or beef (for Muslim) one-and-half inch cube size. The pork was skin with bristle sticking on it and fat, hardly any lean meat. Sometime river fish stinking of mud were given instead. These were considered luxury for prisoners who had no support or relatives outside the jail.
Like Keng Tung, Insein was sustained by food from outside the jail. Visitors were allowed to see the prisoners twice a week, basically for the purpose of bringing food. Rich prisoners who bribed the wardens could bring in good food like curry chicken, chapatti, fruits and luxurious item like books and magazines.
As Rangoon was the national capital and more affluent than Keng Tung, the food brought into the prison were better and more abundant.
A good portion of the ‘illegals/non-citizen’ prisoners with no support from outside resorted to eating rats daily to survive. The prison compound where the open sewers flowed was full of rat holes and rat meat was never in short supply. The highly skilled hunters would shoot them with a sharpened bamboo arrow propelled by a rubber band when the rats come out to eat the baits placed at the rat hole.
Beggars’ bazaar was a huge compound between the prison walls where the prisoners trade and conduct their business using cheroots and cigarettes as the medium of exchange. It’s a huge open market where thousands of wretched souls congregate daily when the prisoners were let out of the cells. On sales were old loungyis; rags and old shirts; stale dirty food stuff of dried chilies, old biscuits, herbal leaves and dried vegetables and hot water in discarded milk tins.
Prisoners in rags and the crippled sat on the dirt floor with their ‘merchandise’. Indian barbers used blunt old razors or home-made ones to earn their cheroots and cigarettes. For the use of a blunt old nail clipper would cost a few cheroots. The number to pay was decided by the brand, quality (freshness) of the tobacco. They were mostly all Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese – those the military junta branded as non-citizens and they had no hope of getting out, unless their embassies take action.
Prison hours: reveille at five; sing the national anthem; recite Buddhist prayers and then prisoners were let out; lockup at five pm and lights out at nine. Ordinary prisoners were kept in big cells about 100 to each, sleeping on the hard concrete floor on a bamboo mat.
Every evening the new prisoners were grilled for hours until lights out by the cell leader assisted by a group of seniors brandishing rattan canes. They had to squat with their hands straight on top the knees (called pongsan in Burmese). When called they had to double-up and shout out their names, prison numbers, their case and case numbers, the father’s name, their sentence and other details. Any hesitation or inaudible reply would invite rattan blows and kicks from the senior prisoners.
After this is over, they had to repeat aloud for hours all the prison regulations and rules. The first being: I am a ‘nobody’, even the hair on my head do not belong to me; right down to procedure to observe when pissing and shitting.
This ‘orientation’ went on for at least two weeks, depending on the leader’s consideration whether you had performed well or badly. Luckily I was spared this ordeal after having done 10 months in Kengtung Jail.
Dark Rooms of Insein Jail: For certain political prisoners and punishment for infringement of prison rules.
Measures 10 by 10 feet and seven feet high. Water was thrown on the concrete floor to make it damp. At one corner was a bucket over-flowing with excreta and maggots. Prisoners had to sweep away the crawling maggots to sleep on the damp cement floor. As much as five prisoners were locked in ine cell with hardly any room to lie down. All who went in came out diseased with all kinds of skin and bone ailments. Prisoners were allowed only 15 minutes out each day to take a bath.
Children in Jail and Dead Man Walking
[I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet]
Ten months in Keng Tung jail, after seeing death, beatings and torture I thought nothing would disturb or surprise me anymore. I was wrong.
What a shock to see the number of children running about in the prison compound, the lepers, the crippled, the blind, the lunatics, TB patients and the living zombies (people who had given up the will to live and had to be force-fed by friends). They were there in their hundreds and thousands.
Skin disease like scabies were so rampant that as high as 90 percent of the inmates were affected, including the author despite the privilege of staying in the hospital. Luckily for me I got out by the second month and seek medical treatment back in Penang.
Could people believe it? The children born in the jail and grew up in the jail, never seen the outside world. What crime had they committed, except to be born in the wrong place? The oldest one I was told was 17 or 18 already. They were children of refugees, illegal immigrants and non-citizens, collectively called FRC which stand for “Foreign Registration Card (holders)”.
There were Chinese FRCs, Indian FRCs, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and tribal FRCs from Nagaland.
Some were still in the belly of their pregnant mother when the whole family was arrested, while others were tiny tots. I saw about 20 of them, aged five years to 15, running about in the hospital compound where I was lucky to be admitted and stayed until my release.
A lot more of the very young children (below 5) stayed with their mothers in the woman section of the prison. Once a week the fathers were allowed to visit the children or to bring them over to the hospital compound for a couple of hours.
There were no words to describe them – the Living Dead – these wretched and pitiful souls. You see it in their eyes in their faces. Eyes that were beyond sorrows and suffering; and faces that their tortured mind had turned puffy, bloated and down syndrome-like. These were the walking zombies. They had known a long time ago, that the Burmese authorities would never release them. They were going to die in jail. They had seen their death hundreds of times when they saw their friends died before their eyes: not a swift clean death but slow agonizing and most horrifying.
Maybe in two years, maybe five or twenty years; the filth, disease and worst of all, the mental agony would get them. They had seen their friends and love-ones die in this manner, released from the terror and agony via the ‘Black Box’.
They were now mentally dead and had to be forced-fed by friends and loved-ones. Of all the ugly sights in Insein Jail, this was the most disturbing and haunting. How could the Burmese regime be so cruel to his fellow human beings?
Once the mind had given up, the body withered. Singing and prayers were the only antidote against this sheer terror of a slow death. The oldest inmate was a Rohinga Muslim from Arakhan State – over 90 years of age, half blind and bent with age. He had been held for 28 years. A group of them stayed in the hospital compound, the younger ones already in their seventies but still able to walk around and move about during their daily prayers. It must be their prayers and faith that kept them alive.
This is what I heard from the Muslim leader: Between 1941 and 1942 following the British withdrawal in the face of Japanese advances into Burma, there was a bloody religious war between the Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan State. In 1957 and 1959 all the leaders of the Muslims called Rohingas were arrested and about 200 of them were brought to Rangoon’s Insein Jail. In 1978 they were still there where I met them, albeit 140 as 60 had died in captivity. Half of them were suffering from tuberculosis and some going blind.
I had never touched a Bible before nor get close to the Koran, coming from a Confucian/Daoist family. I was given a Bible when out of the blue a group of tribal missionaries came to Kentung jail on Christmas and New Year’s Day to feed the prisoners.
I had asked the preacher to get me a bar of soap, a tooth brush and tooth paste. He said he would pray for me and not to worry because Jesus was a prisoner too and added that he would bring me a Bible to read. I thanked him profusely and told him I had nothing to do and nothing to read and just about recover from bronchitis. “Give me anything and I will read with gusto!” I said eagerly.
My first attempt to be admitted into Insein Jail hospital failed when I said I was recovering from bronchitis. The second time was successful when I said the Malaysian ambassador had just came to visit me and I’m gonna be out soon. Surely it’s bad if I were to return back to my country looking sickly. That did the trick.
The happiest person to see me was Erwin Reiter, the Austrian prisoner. My bed was next to his and God knows in this dreadful confinement, how many hours we had spent chatting and me listening to his adventure and exploits in Angola, Mosambique, Bangladesh; and how he escaped impending execution by clinging to the under carriage of a prison supply truck in Angola.
He was highly impressed when he saw my small pocket-size Bible, and told me that during his escape, he came across a Christian family living in the bush and how they fed him and didn’t betrayed him.
Erwin took me to see the Muslim leader, in the jail. Aktar was a millionaire business man of Pakistani extraction. He was born in Burma and later migrated to Pakistan when General Ne Win expelled the Indians and Muslims and nationalised all their businesses in 1962. In the 70s, he returned to Burma for some business ventures and was accused of ‘sabotaging the socialist economy of Burma’.
Aktar had bribed the jail and he was living in ‘luxury’ in a special compound with about 30 jail followers – 8 of them ex Chinese Red Guards Muslim converts who also acted as his bodyguards. He had food (curry chicken, chapatti, biryani rice, bananas, etc) brought to him from outside every day, as well as books and medicine. Erwin a.k.a. Kassim, was one of the converts.
After a long session of questioning he told me that he had even met the deputy prime minister of Malaysia in one of his business trip to Kuala Lumpur. He said that he knew the ambassador had visited me and I would be free soon and he wanted me to take a personal message to the former Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abduk Rahman who was the head of the World Islamic Council and to tell him about the suffering and ‘massacre’ of the Burmese Muslims.
I was welcomed to eat with him, the only non-Muslim in the group. He gave me two books to read, one about the life history of Prophet Mohammad and the other about Islamic civilisation and the Koran. In the dreadful confine, I devoured the books and thoroughly enjoyed reading, as I enjoyed reading the Bible earlier.
About two weeks later after a ‘sumptuous’ lunch we were all sitting in a circle on the hard granite stone floor as usual making small talk, I was taken aback when Aktar shot a question at me: “Kim, I had given you the books to read, now tell me what have you learned about Islam?”
I remembered very vividly I was calmed though it was such a surprise like I was being interrogated by a council of Islamic clergy. I said, “Mr Aktar thank you very much for the loan of the books, I really enjoyed reading. I come to understand that Islam is a good religion, it is the most socialist and egalitarian religion of all that my limited knowledge know of; especially the part when it says all man are equal before God. You may be a king or a beggar but in the house of God we are all the same.”
“It emphasised very explicitly, the help and kindness to widows and orphans, obligation of the rich to help the poor, the giving of tithes and alms, the universal proclamation that all Muslims are brothers.”
“But I have also learned that a woman is very important in Islam. Without the women there won’t be Islam. In the life of Prophet Mohammad, I read that Kathijah, the prophet’s wife played a very important role. She was older and was instrumental in the success of Mohammad as a trader.
“Later when Mohammad went to the mountain and God appeared in ‘thunder, fire and lightning’, he was panic stricken and ran home. It was Khatijah that calmed him and coaxed him back to the mountain where he received the message from God.
“I don’t understand why today in some Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afganistan, the women are treated very differently, they can’t drive a car for example and various restrictions are imposed on women,” I concluded.
The silence was deafening, suddenly Aktar retorted in a loud voice, “Kim, you are not married, what do you know about women? Shut up!”
I remained calm and didn’t say a word, and there was some sort of silent rejoicing – I felt in my heart I had said what I said with sincerity and I had spoken my mind truthfully in the ‘discourse ‘ on Islam. I continued to eat with Aktar and our friendship grew warmer until the day of my release on May 13, 1978.
Erwin was very sad not knowing when he would be released but happy for me, and he walked me out right to the main prison gate. As we shook hands he meekly asked, as if apologetically, “Can you give me your Bible?”
“Why? Of course! The missionary gave it to me in Kengtung jail, now I’m most happy I can pass it on to someone. It has kept me sane and alive and surely it must be one of the best reading materials to have in jail, when you have nothing to do and nothing to occupy the mind,” I said joyfully.