Burma’s Insein Central Jail – Hell on Earth
By Kim Gooi
“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 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 overdued.
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?…watches?, valuables? How many shirts and trousers?” a prison officer 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 is that?….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 labour 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 beatened 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.
I was led through the vast compound of walls and prison blocks 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.
Words that a Malaysian had entered the jail 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 Keng Tung.
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 were 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, chapati, 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.
more in part 3: Burmese Living Hell