“Nothing is more revealing about the situation of human rights in a country than the existence of political prisoners. They embody the denial of the most basic freedoms essential to human kind, such as freedom of opinion and assembly.”
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro
Former United Nations Special Rapporteur
on the situation of Human Rights in Burma
During our time on the border of Thailand and Burma – Wendy and I paid a visit and gave a donation to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners of Burma (AAPPB) on behalf of the Bath Amnesty group. The AAPPB is an organization which supports political prisoners who are both inside and outside of prison and also supports their families. During our time at the AAPPB, we met two former Burmese political prisoners – “Zulu” and Noble. As Burma has been a long standing campaign for the Bath Amnesty group, and all our members have dedicated so much time and energy in writing letters to free Burmese political prisoners, it was a huge honour for us to meet with Zulu and Noble and learn about their experiences.
“Zulu” (the alias she goes by to protect her identity) and Noble both have the warm, welcoming, friendly disposition that we have come to love about the Burmese people. As we sit together in the sunny courtyard of the AAPPB and enjoy their warm and welcoming smiles, it’s hard to tell they have both suffered the might of Burma’s brutal military dictatorship in the not so distant past. As we soon learn, these former political prisoners, our human rights warriors, paid a painful price for standing up for what they believe in. Here are their stories:
Born and grown up in Rangoon, it is easy to see that Zulu would have excelled in anything she did, if she had had the chance. She has long, black hair and big, friendly eyes. As well as being very beautiful, she carries an air of intelligence and speaks English fluently.
“I was studying Physics at Rangoon University. I enjoyed learning and I had lots of friends … but this was a dark time in Burma’s past. It was 1998. Many students were protesting against the Junta… I wanted to support them.”
Zulu was supporting the student demos and the (then) illegal organization “All Burma Federation of Students Union.” (ABFSU).The demos were protesting against the lack of political representation for the people of Burma and the Junta’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimate winner of the 1990 elections- Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party. Zulu took on a supporting role with the ABFSU. She recorded donations that come in for the party and attended meetings with party members. On the 24th August 1998, Zulu was arrested by the Burmese Military Intelligence Unit.
After she was arrested she was interrogated for 3 days. A well documented method of torture used by the Junta was sleep deprivation. Zulu was made stay awake for 72 hours. They humiliated her, insulted her and her family. They were aggressive and accusatory. They questioned her character for “associating with men”.
She was kept in solitary confinement while awaiting “trial”. It took place on 30th December 1998. It was conducted inside Insein prison in Rangoon. There was no judge, or jury, only members of the Intelligence unit. She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment under the “Emergency Provision Act.”
Zulu’s first two years in prison “were horrible.” She missed her family. She wasn’t allowed to see them in the lead up to the trial, and after sentencing she was only allowed one visit a month. Her Mum and Dad – “her bedrock” – would visit her every month. Tragically many other relatives didn’t visit. Political prisoners are often ostracized by their families for fear of association. Zulu experienced the pain of family members not coming to see her. Time in the prison passed slowly. She was allowed only 15 minutes for washing her body and her clothes every day- the rest of the time she remained in her cell. No books, no distractions.
Zulu cites the things that kept her going. “Visits from the Red Cross were so helpful. I had no idea I had rights as a prisoner. They informed me I had rights. After a few years in prison I was allowed to read religious books. I learnt about meditation and this helped me a lot.”
In 2003, Zulu’s mother became ill. Despite appealing to the authorities for an early release so she could see her mother, Zulu’s mother died.
Zulu becomes very quiet and is clearly gazing into her past. After a brief silence, I comment, “That must have been an incredibly difficult time for you.” Zulu’s warm brave smile turns into tears as she remembers that time in her life. Tears flood down her cheeks and the pain of losing her mother and not being able to say goodbye are painfully evident. “My father also died 8 months after I was released. I didn’t get to spend those years with them when I was in prison. I missed them so much. I can never make up that time with them now.” The tears keep falling but there is no bitterness with Zulu, only sadness of losing the two people most dear to her. Political prisoners are our human rights warriors – yet in this moment we realized how important it is to remember the personal pain they endure for standing up for their principles- including after they have left prison. The anguish they suffer does not end when they are freed. It is just the beginning for them to put the pieces of their life back together and suffer the loss of the years they were in prison.
Zulu was released in June 2004. 4 years early. I asked her why she was released. “International pressure. Thanks to organizations like Amnesty International. Your letters work. They really work. The Junta knew that you knew about us. We were not forgotten. You didn’t forget us. They couldn’t just let us die.”
In exile now, she is far away from the city where she grew up and the friends she left behind. Yet she cannot return for fear of being arrested again.
“Things are getting better in Burma, but we are not a democracy. There are still 240 political prisoners and 125 are awaiting trial. Burma is not free. Until it is truly free and safe, I cannot return home.”
Noble Aye’s story
“Noble Aye” is not an alias. It is the real name of the another political prisoner we are hounoured to interview. Like Zulu, Noble is also a very beautiful woman! She is tiny and petit- no more than 4.8 ft tall! She carries a distinctive air of “don’t mess with me.” Yet her smile is as warm and welcoming as Zulu’s and she is eager to tell us her story. Zulu sits with us in Noble’s interview and translates for some areas that are difficult for her to express in English.
“My mother was a member of the NLD”, Noble begins. The NLD stands for the National League for Democracy. It is the party that rightfully won the 1990 elections. Their famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was put under house arrest after the elections and was released in early 2011.
Noble was arrested in 1998, on 25th September, one month after Zulu. Noble had been distributing an NLD handbook, which documented the Junta’s brutal crackdown on the 1996 student demonstrations. Noble and Zulu both laugh as Noble recalls her arrest and first imprisonment. “I shouted at the Intelligence officers! I told them off. I was very angry.” Zulu laughs and adds, “I think they were afraid of her!”
Noble was sentenced to 42 years in prison. On four counts of “5J” an Act which prevents “Public Mischief.” They both smile at this.
Noble spent 7 years in the same prison as Zulu, in the cell next door. They were not allowed to talk to each other in the whole 7 years. Wendy asks “Did you find a way to communicate?” They give each other a mischievous smile. “We whispered.”
“Amnesty International put a lot of pressure for my release. The Junta released me 35 years early.” Another big smile.
After she was released in 2005, she immediately became the activist she was 7 years previously. Clearly, without a moments hesitation.
“After I was released in 2005, I joined the ’88 Generation student group. We were campaigning for the other political prisoners to be released. I was free, but what about them? I was very angry and very sorry for the political prisoners who hadn’t yet been released. I was angry and sorry for the people of Burma. I wanted things to change.”
Noble was arrested again and this time sentenced to 11 years imprisonment. She served 5 years of her sentence and was freed in January 2012. Her early release was again due to international pressure.
In solidarity, In defiance
Noble and Zulu sum up what Amnesty International is all about about. In absolute defiance and fearlessness of the dictatorship, Noble and Zulu stood up for what they believed in and paid the price by being imprisoned and losing their liberty.
When Noble was released, she didn’t hesitate a moment to start campaigning again. In solidarity with the hundreds of political prisoners who still hadn’t been released. Their selflessness is an overwhelming, humbling, stark reminder of why we meet every month to write letters – letters which work.
We must continue to campaign and fight for the 240 political prisoners who are still languishing in Burmese prisons today and the further 125 who are awaiting trial. Burma will not be free until the last political prisoner is free – join us in making that a reality.
If you would like to join the Bath Amnesty group and write letters for the freedom of political prisoners in Burma like Zulu and Noble, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .