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Humanitarian Emergencies

Parcels for Prisoners: Exiled Myanmar Activists Keep the Revolutionary Faith

A selection of mostly simple food items put together in Myanmar in parcels for political prisoners, using funds raised by activists and the Burmese diaspora. Credit: Supplied to William Webb/IPS

A selection of mostly simple food items put together in Myanmar in parcels for political prisoners, using funds raised by activists and the Burmese diaspora. Credit: Supplied to William Webb/IPS

CHIANGMAI, Thailand, Feb 26 2024 (IPS) - Rangoon Nights is rocking. The bar is on its feet and the cocktail shaker is shaking in abandon as the band Born In Burma starts pumping out its beat.

Except we’re not in Rangoon or Burma (officially called Myanmar), but in the northern Thai town of Chiangmai which has evolved into a hub for activists, fugitives, and those taking a break from the war tearing their country apart.

Dancing among them with a wraith-like grace is Sakura—her nom de guerre—who, like others in the bar popular with Myanmar exiles, is there both to let her hair down and to raise funds for the revolutionary movement fighting the military junta that seized power three years ago.

Sakura’s personal operation—run by a small, close-knit team—is to deliver food parcels to a few dozen political prisoners held by the regime in appalling conditions across Myanmar. More than 1,500 are documented to have died in detention by force or by neglect since the coup. Over 20,000 are known to be behind bars.

“The parcels are a message for them—that we still support you and don’t forget you,” says Sakura.

Her project evolved by accident. Sakura was in Yangon in early 2021, joining vast crowds of anti-coup protesters, when her cousin was arrested and disappeared into the prison system. Suspecting she was held in Yangon’s notorious Insein jail (built by British colonisers in the 1800s), lawyers told Sakura that if she delivered a food parcel with her cousin’s name and it was accepted at the prison, then it would signal she was indeed inside.

It worked. Sakura shared this piece of useful information on Facebook, the social media outlet favoured by the resistance, while the junta uses Telegram. Soon, she started receiving pleas for help from families of other prisoners.

Sakura’s food parcel project was born. It moved with her to Thailand in 2022 after she fled police raids on her Yangon home. “I can’t go back,” she says.

Her small but effective operation speaks volumes about the war in Myanmar—largely forgotten beyond its borders; ineffectual international institutions and humanitarian organisations; little outside aid. But juxtaposed with domestic and vibrant civil society organisations like Sakura’s that strive to make a difference, work efficiently, and give a chance for a better future.

Sakura’s parcels—assembled inside Myanmar—contain soup powder to flavour bland prison mush, instant noodles, cookies, ingredients for much-loved tea-leaf salad, anti-bacterial soap for skin diseases, soap powder for clothes, shampoo, and toothbrush and paste. Plus the all-important Premier brand of coffee mix, which acts as a form of currency among prisoners.

The team presently delivers to about 35 prisoners a month, a tiny fraction of the growing numbers that the junta is incarcerating in a prison construction boom, one of the few sectors of the economy benefiting from the civil war.

Faces of the dead. Myanmar's non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has a museum in the Thai border town of Mae Sot documenting the identities of over 3,000 civilians killed by the military since it seized power in 2021, as well as those killed since the first post-independence coup in 1962. Credit: Guy Dinmore/IPS

Faces of the dead. Myanmar’s non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has a museum in the Thai border town of Mae Sot documenting the identities of over 3,000 civilians killed by the military since it seized power in 2021, as well as those killed since the first post-independence coup in 1962.

Working with a total monthly budget of some 3.0 million kyat (about USD 850 at the street rate), Sakura also sends money to sustain poor families whose main breadwinners are now behind bars. One is the mother of a Yangon hotel receptionist in her 20s who was sentenced to 15 years.

“Her crime was to have donated about USD 10 to the resistance. Police seized her phone and found the payment on the app. Her mother is ill and cannot work,” explains Sakura, who learned English in a Buddhist monastery and comes from a family of farmers.

Delivering the parcels is not a typical Deliveroo operation. Funds are sent from Thailand by various means to her small team in Myanmar, who, at the risk of arrest for ‘supporting terrorism’, buy the items and pack the parcels. They are then discreetly passed to lawyers representing the prisoners, who pass them on to family members who take them on their prison visits.

Sanitary products are included for some female detainees. “Sometimes we also get special requests for clothes and underwear. My budget doesn’t always stretch,“ she says.

On the other side of Chiangmai, Sonny Swe, a well-known Myanmar entrepreneur and publisher formerly based in Yangon, reflects on the trauma of over eight years of solitary confinement in prison, from 2004 to 2013, and the importance then of family visits bringing food parcels.

“Meditation, exercise, reading” were the bedrock of his survival, he says over a hearty Burmese breakfast of mohinga fish soup in his café, Gatone’s (Baldy’s). He was held in five different prisons and the long distances from home prevented regular family visits.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I am strong, strong. I will survive. They will not break me. I will defeat them.’ But once you come out of prison, you understand the toll, the trauma. You think you are fine and strong but you are not.”

Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of the non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), was a political prisoner for seven years and knows well the succour provided by family and friends to those incarcerated.

“Family support is very important for a political prisoner,” he says. Now 59, he was jailed from 1990–93 for demonstrating and calling for release of all political prisoners, and arrested again in 1994 for four more years. He says military intelligence tried to recruit him as an informer but he refused and, in turn, demanded freedom for all political prisoners and for the regime to enter into dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi who was then under house arrest. Leader of the elected government overthrown in the coup, she is back in prison.

Bo Kyi co-founded AAPP in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in March 2000. The organisation meticulously documents identities of political prisoners and tracks their fate, as well as civilians killed by the regime. AAPP, deemed an illegal organisation by the regime, also offers training in dealing with trauma and counselling services, assisted by Johns Hopkins University, Maryland.

As of late February, AAPP has documented the names and identities of 20,147 people it defines as political prisoners, including over 4,000 women and 300 children. Sentenced to death, so far, are 15 women and 136 men. Four were executed on July 23, 2022, including well known activist Ko Jimmy.

As of January 31 this year, it had documented 1,588 people who were “killed through force or neglect” during detention by the regime and its supporters since the coup. The actual number may be much higher. “Torture is endemic,” AAPP says. A large number of those killed in detention are in Sagaing Region, “where resistance by the people is fiercest,”  says AAPP.

They are not just statistics. Speaking of the bravery of those inside Myanmar who try to alleviate the plight of prisoners, Sakura shares the latest shocking news.

Noble Aye, a prominent human rights activist, was reportedly killed in detention along with a companion, apparently after a court hearing on February 8 in Bago Region. They had been detained at a checkpoint in Waw Township on January 20, allegedly carrying weapons and ammunition, charges that the resistance say were false.

She had been jailed twice before as a political prisoner and shared a cell with Zin Mar Aung, the current foreign affairs minister in the shadow National Unity Government set up after the coup.

As it does regularly, the regime was reported to have blamed her death in detention on an escape attempt. The family says they received information that her body was secretly cremated. Noble Aye was 49 and in bad health.

William Webb is an independent travel writer

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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