VII. Detention Centers and Abuses

The Large-Scale Ad Hoc Detention Facilities

City Hall

One of the first ad-hoc detention centers to be set up was inside the City Hall, next to Sule Pagoda, where troops of the 66th LID based themselves inside the City Hall compound. Many of the people detained in downtown Rangoon during the crackdown were taken directly to City Hall, but so were others arrested at their homes, including the comedian Zargana, who was taken there immediately after his arrest on the night of September 25.

“Kyi Kyi Su,” who was detained on September 27 in downtown Rangoon, explained to Human Rights Watch that after being beaten by Swan Arr Shin members, she was taken to City Hall, where she was kept with approximately a hundred other detained persons, and guarded by soldiers and riot police. Each detainee was questioned three times, once by a civilian-dressed person and twice by police officers. The questions focused on basic biographical details and whether the detainees had any affiliation with political opposition groups or protest organizers. The detainees received a basic meal and were then transferred to the Government Technical Institute in army trucks covered with canvas at about 9:30 p.m.222

Although the 66th LID continued to use City Hall as one of their main bases well into October, the facility does not appear to have been used for large-scale detentions after the initial crackdown in late September. Most of the detainees were moved out to other ad-hoc detention facilities, such as the Kyaik Ka San Race Course and the Government Technical Institute.

Kyaik Ka San Race Course

Another ad-hoc detention center was created at the Kyaik Ka San Horse Race Course (close to Tamwe High School 3, where the deadly clash took place on September 27). “Thein Gyi Khain,” who was detained at the Tamwe High School clash, recounted to Human Rights Watch that he and other detainees were taken from the school in 5 or six buses and a blue prison truck to the race course, where they were separated by gender and counted: because of the count, the detainee knew there were 191 men and 51 women detainees from his convoy, including some monks and students still in their school uniforms.223

The men and women were taken to separate dark rooms, and received only limited water. No medical care was given to the wounded, many of whom cried out in pain. He and many other prisoners were transferred to the Government Technical Institute that same night at about 1:30 a.m., but the race course continued to be used as an ad-hoc detention facility after this transfer. For example, on September 30, a group of 162 detainees from GTI were transferred to the race course, and most spent three more days there before being released.

A Burmese security official who had been at the facility reported to Human Rights Watch that at least two people had died at the race course, apparently from exposure and untreated medical conditions and wounds, after being forced to sleep on bare concrete floors, and beatings.224 A detainee who was moved from the Government Technical Institute to a large detention facility unknown to him but most likely the race course (since this was the only other large-scale ad-hoc detention facility in operation at the time)225 on October 1 told Human Rights Watch that he had seen the soldiers beat a monk and a second detainee to death. When he refused to sign a document admitting his own guilt and absolving the authorities from any wrongdoing prior to his own release, he was also severely beaten until he agreed to sign the statement.226 There does not appear to have been extensive interrogation at the race course, and the facility appears to have functioned primarily as a screening facility.

Government Technical Institute (GTI)

Perhaps the largest ad-hoc detention center during the crackdown was set up at the Government Technical Institute (GTI), located almost adjacent to Insein prison. At the height of the detentions, the GTI housed up to several thousand detainees. Among the detainees were novice monks as young as 12-year old.227

A variety of army units guarded the facility, but the guards were under the command of the Army Training Depot (Lei Kyin Ye Tat) in Yemon, a small military town halfway between Rangoon and Pegu.228 Members of the 77th Light Infantry Division, the Army Medical Corps, the Air Force, and artillery units also operated at the GTI. Lt. Colonel Tin Thaw of the Yemon Training Depot supervised the GTI and addressed the detainees on several occasions.229 Detainees were interrogated by a variety of security agencies including Special Branch police officers, Military Security Affairs (MSA) officers, and officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Conditions at GTI were unsanitary, crowded, and life-threatening—some detainees died from exposure and untreated medical conditions. “U Thu Mana,” a monk who was detained at GTI told Human Rights Watch that he was kept with 600 other male detainees in a room without latrines. For the first 15 days of his detention, there were no bathing facilities, and even after that the detainees were only allowed to bathe while soldiers verbally insulted and abused them, so he refused to bathe. For the first week, the detainees slept on the cold concrete floor without blankets, until a detainee died and the soldiers put plywood on the floors and gave them blankets. They only received small amounts of water, and two small bags of food per day, which they had to eat with unwashed hands.230

A second detainee explained that he had arrived at GTI at 3:30 a.m. on September 28 and that the soldiers verbally abused and beat some of the new arrivals. He was put in a 9 meter by 18 meter room with another 190 detainees. The two toilets in the room quickly filled up and were rendered useless. The next day, 50 of the men in the room received medical attention for wounds received during the previous day’s crackdown. They slept on the bare concrete floor until October 2, when they received plywood panels to put down on the floor. They had no opportunity to bathe or even wash their hands, so they used the plastic bags the food came in to cover their hands while eating.231

Severe beatings and torture occurred with some detainees at GTI. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, the security forces tortured a 39-year-old man because they found two old, out-of-circulation ten-kyat banknotes with the portrait of General Aung San on his person. For this, he was accused of being a protest organizer (Aung San was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the security forces apparently believed the banknotes were a secret sign of opposition membership). Because he had closely cropped hair, the security forces also accused him of having posed as a monk involved in the protests.232 The soldiers forced him to maintain a push-up position for long periods of time, and beat him with their batons whenever he collapsed. The man required medical attention after his release.233 A student from the Institute of Economics who was found with a library card for the American Center in his possession (both the Institute of Economics and the American Center are seen by the SPDC as opposition hotbeds), was repeatedly tortured, including by being hung upside down for long periods of time and being punched repeatedly in the face. He remains in detention at the time of this report.234

At least two detainees became severely mentally disturbed during their detention at GTI, and at least one was beaten to death after losing his mind. Than Aung, 43, compulsively tried to open the doors and windows of the room in which he was being detained. The guards first beat him every time he tried to escape, but then tied his hands with a cord to the wall. The detainee’s hands were soon bleeding from trying to escape from the cord, and he repeatedly banged as hard as he could against the concrete wall. According to a witness who was detained in the same room, the mentally disturbed Than Aung then refused an order to keep his head down when Lt. Col. Tin Thaw, the commander of GTI, visited the room. Lt. Col. Tin Thaw ordered the beating of Than Aung, and Than Aung subsequently died on October 1, from injuries sustained earlier during the severe beatings.235

A second detainee also developed severe mental problems, spending two days talking to himself and chanting without pause before being sent to a mental hospital.236

Three separate witnesses reported that an alcoholic man had died at GTI after suffering from withdrawal problems. U Ye Lwin, a well-known musician, reported that he had seen an alcoholic man die in his room at GTI: “Some of [the detainees] were alcoholics and since they were not able to get alcohol, they lost their minds. One died right in front of me. He had to sleep on the cement floor and he was mentally ill, so people didn’t want to be near him. He was dead in the morning.”237 Another detainee suffered an epileptic fit and was foaming at the mouth, and was beaten so severely by the guards (who did not understand the detainee was having an epileptic fit) that he died from his injuries.238 These three deaths were directly observed by former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, but it is likely that other deaths occurred, as detainees were kept in many separate rooms at GTI, and Human Rights Watch did not interview detainees from all of these rooms.

Large-scale releases from GTI took place on October 4, when about 100 detainees were released, and October 6, when up to 500 detainees were released. In each case, the detainees had to sign a blank paper, and it was explained to them by Lt. Colonel Tin Thaw, the GTI commander, that they had signed a pledge that they would not participate in future protests and had not been abused at GTI.239

Insein Prison and Other Official Detention Centers

Although many of the detainees arrested during the massive sweeps were taken to ad-hoc detention centers, the majority of the “political” detainees—suspected or known members of the ’88 Generation students movement, NLD officials, protest organizers, and public figures who had expressed support for the protests—were taken to official detention centers, including the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon. Most of these “political” detainees remain in detention, although a significant number of NLD leaders and most public figures, including the musician U Ye Lwin, the comedian Zargana, and the actor Kyaw Thu, have been released.

For eight days, the popular comedian Zargana was held in a special punishment area of Insein prison known as the “Military Dog Cells”—a compound of nine tiny isolation cells measuring two meters by two meters constantly guarded by a troop of 30 vicious dogs. The cells lack ventilation or toilets, and he was forced to relieve himself into a metal plate. When it became full, he tried to urinate under the door but the dogs attempted to bite him. He had to sleep on a thin mat on the concrete floor, and was allowed to bathe once every three days. Zargana knew at least two other political detainees who were also kept at the Military Dog Cells, Than Tin and Myint Soe.240

Most of the ’88 Generation student leaders are believed to be in solitary confinement at Insein prison. U Ye Lwin, a detained musician, reported after his release that he had seen ’88 Generation student leaders Min Ko Naing, Ko Min Zeya, Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Jimmy, and Ko Htay Kyweh being individually taken from isolation cells at Insein prison to wash their faces.241 U Ye Lwin stated that ordinary university students did get beaten on occasion: “People were beaten when [the interrogators] couldn’t get the answers they wanted.”242

Human Rights Watch interviewed two of the ’88 Generation activists who were detained during the first arrest wave in August, and released on November 1. One told Human Rights Watch that the ’88 activists were first taken to the Ministry of Home Affairs compound in Rangoon, and transferred a few days later to Riot Police Battalion Bases 3, 5, and 7 for their initial interrogation, which was limited to taking basic biographical information of the detainees. Then, all 17 of the ’88 Generation activists who had been arrested together were transferred to Insein prison, where they were kept at a separate isolation compound, the Thithan Asaung.

At Insein, each of the ’88 Generation detainees was assigned an interrogation team of three Special Branch officers. During the interrogations, the activists were subjected to sleep deprivation, interrogated for four days and nights without rest and slapped in their faces if they tried to sleep. 243

The two ’88 Generation activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch both stated that the 17 members of their group had not suffered forms of torture other than sleep deprivation during their August to November detention.244 However, they did witness Military Security Affairs (MSA, Burma’s main military intelligence organization) interrogators brutally interrogating other activists who were suspected of having ties to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and other exile groups.

Because the interrogators often forgot to close the doors between the interrogation rooms, the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch personally witnessed severe abuse of these suspects, including a detainee who was lying semi-conscious on the floor of the room while being kicked in the ribs by a military security affairs officer, and an unconscious detainee who was picked up from the floor by his hair. The military security affairs officers also used “stress positions” during interrogations, making the suspect’s squat on their toes for long periods of time and placing soap bars with tooth picks under their heels. The ex-detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch gave details about five separate detainees who were subjected to such brutal interrogations.245

Although the largest and best-known official detention facility in Rangoon, Insein prison is not the only facility that the authorities are using around Rangoon. Among the other detention facilities are a riot police camp in Thanlyin, where some 50 protesters detained in the area of Thanlyin were held; the Shwe Pauk Kan camp run by the Special Branch police, where some NLD officials and ’88 Generation students were sent for questioning; the Mawbi base of the 7th Battalion of the Riot Police, where protesters from Paunda were detained; and the Kyaik Ka San police station, where approximately 12 detainees were kept in late October, including monks and NLD members.246 Little is known about the treatment at these detention centers, as Human Rights Watch has not been able to locate and interview any individuals who had been released from these facilities.

222 Human Rights Watch interview with “Kyi Kyi Su,” (location withheld), October 23, 2007.

223 Human Rights Watch interview with “Thein Gyi Khaing,” (location withheld), October 10, 2007.

224 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), November 1, 2007.

225 Other detainees were transferred from GTI to the Race Course on the same day as this witness, and the Race Course and GTI were the only two large ad-hoc detention centers still in operation in Rangoon at the time.

226 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 19, 2007.

227 Human Rights Watch interview with “U Thu Mana,” (location withheld), October 29, 2007.

228 Two Human Rights Watch interviews (names and location withheld), October 2007.

229 Ibid.

230 Human Rights Watch interview with “U Thu Mana,” (location withheld), October 29, 2007.

231 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 2007.

232 According to the eyewitness, the security forces accused him of being a political activist who had infiltrated the monk protests by posing as a monk, in order to politicize the protests.

233 Communication to Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2007, on file at Human Rights Watch. A second witness interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch had been in the same room as this detainee, and confirmed his account of beatings. Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 2007.

234 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 2007.

235 Human Rights Watch interview with “Maung Maung Hla,” (location withheld), October 23, 2007. The death of Than Aung was also reported in the media. See “Dissident Group: Myanmar Guards Brutalized Pro-Democracy Detainees,” Associated Press, October 11, 2007 (reporting that Than Aung, “[d]etained September 27, he suffered severe internal injuries from beatings and died three days later after being denied medical attention.”

236 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 2007.

237 “Burma: A Musician’s View of Insein Prison,” RFA Unplugged, October 22, 2007.

238 Human Rights Watch interviews with “Ant Kyaw Ko,” (location withheld), November 9 and November 20, 2007.

239 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 28, 2007.

240 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 26, 2007.

241 “Burma: A Musician’s View of Insein Prison,” RFA Unplugged, October 22, 2007.

242 Ibid.

243 Human Rights Watch interviews with two ’88 Generation detainees (names and locations withheld), November 3 and 17, 2007.

244 Ibid. Zargana and U Ye Lwin also stated that they had not witnessed the ’88 Generation activists being tortured.

245 Human Rights Watch interviews with 2 ’88 Generation detainees (names and location withheld), November 3 and 17, 2007.

246 Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 22, 2007; Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), October 26, 2007.