An inmate protest at a prison in southern Myanmar that prompted a deadly crackdown last week was sparked in part by preparations for the execution of a schoolteacher, Radio Free Asia has learned.
The revelation sheds new light on the cause of the incident at Pathein Prison in the Ayeyarwady region, the latest in a string of more than 15 violent crackdowns on protests by political prisoners – termed “riots” by authorities – in the nearly two years since the military seized power in a coup.
On the night of Jan. 5, guards discovered a mobile phone in the possession of 33-year-old Wai Yan Phyo, a prisoner of conscience serving 28 years for taking part in an anti-coup protest, sources with knowledge of the prison and others assisting political prisoners at the facility told RFA last week.
Following the discovery, guards pulled Wai Yan Phyo – also known as Yar Su – and two other inmates from their cells and beat them throughout the night before returning them the following morning, the sources said.
RFA originally reported that when the three men explained to their fellow inmates what had happened to them and demanded they be released, authorities refused, sparking a protest by other prisoners.
But on Wednesday, family members of political prisoners at Pathein Prison told RFA that, in addition to frustration over guards’ treatment of the trio, the protest was also prompted by preparations for the execution of a school teacher sentenced to death by hanging at the complex. Details of the teacher’s case were not immediately clear.
Guards responded by beating and opening fire on the protesters. Wai Yan Phyo was hit in the head by three bullets and died on the spot.
Nearly 70 inmates suffered gunshot wounds and other injuries, including Pho La Pyae, Win Min Htet, Soe Yu Kyaw, Wai Zaw Lat, Aung Tun Myint, Kyaw Ye Aung, Ye Thway Ni and a yet-to-be-identified eighth man, who were left in critical condition. Win Min Htet, 31, also known as Mae Gyi, later succumbed to his injuries, according to former political prisoners with knowledge of the situation at Pathein Prison.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, a relative of Wai Yan Phyo said that only his mother was allowed to see his body before officials had it cremated.
“In the cemetery, the prison authorities showed his mother [only] his injuries from being beaten,” the family member said. “They tried to prove to her that there were no gunshot wounds.”
According to the relative, not even Wai Yan Phyo’s wife was allowed to see his body before the cremation. His ashes were returned to the family, the relative said.
‘Chickens in a cage’
A former political prisoner who served time at Pathein Prison likened inmates at the facility to “chickens in a cage” with no rights.
“[The guards] can do whatever they want to them at any time,” the former prisoner said.
“The prisoners’ safety should be the number one priority in prison. This is also one of the Prison Department’s [stated] goals,” he said. “They are solely responsible for the safety and lives of the prisoners.”
Several calls by RFA seeking comment from Naing Win, the spokesperson for the junta’s Prison Department, went unanswered Wednesday.
A statement issued by the junta on Jan. 6 referred to the prison protest as a “riot” incited by troublesome inmates. It said around 70 prisoners destroyed a door leading from their cell block to an adjacent courtyard and attacked authorities, injuring 2 police officers and 9 prison guards. It acknowledged the death of an inmate, who it said was “killed by fellow prisoners,” and said 63 others were injured.
A former prison warden, who declined to be named for security reasons, told RFA that last week’s protest turned deadly because the officials chose not to address the cell phone discovery in accordance with the law.
“In retrospect, if they had dealt with the discovery of the mobile phone … peacefully and in accordance with the law, there is no reason this would have happened,” he said. “But because they mishandled the problem, the incident got out of control.”
Gathering evidence of a ‘war crime’
An official with Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said that incidents like the one at Pathein Prison are “happening in prisons all over the country,” and suggested the military regime is “targeting and oppressing political prisoners with malice.”
He also called the beating, shooting and killing of prisoners who are not in any position to resist “a cruel and inhumane act,” adding that the officials responsible for the incident “will have to face the consequences one day.”
According to the AAPP, at least 13,360 people have been detained on political charges since Myanmar’s Feb. 1, 2021 coup – 1,937 of whom have been sentenced to prison.
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government on Wednesday referred to the crackdown as a “war crime,” telling RFA that its Ministry of Human Rights is gathering evidence to prosecute prison officials.
“This incident has been accurately reported to the United Nations and all human rights monitoring groups,” said Aung Myo Min, the NUG’s human rights minister. “Although there has been no punishment yet, we will continue to hold the officials of the prison department responsible for this crime as seriously as those who carry out the military’s war crimes.”
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