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Former Political Prisoners Seek to Aid Those Still Detained in Burma


Former Burmese political prisoners now living in Thailand have formed an association to support compatriots still detained back home.

In the back lots of this town just a stone's throw from the Burmese border, former Burmese political prisoners are trying to make a difference for comrades still being held by the military government in Rangoon.

The activists have formed the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, or AAPP.

The association, formed in 2000, monitors more than 1,500 political prisoners held in Burma's extensive network of prisons and detention centers.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International says political prisoners are thought to be held in 10 locations throughout the country.

One of the AAPP workers is Myo Myint, a Burmese army engineer until the mid-1980's, when he lost a leg and an arm in an explosion.

Myo Mint says after he met in 1989 with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, he was arrested. That was the start of almost 15 years in Burma's prison system during which, he says, he was repeatedly tortured.

"I was sent to interrogation center three times - first time four days, second time 11 days, third time six days. In this interrogation center I was tortured many so many [times] because the military so very hate me because I am ex-military. … They take out all my clothes, I was naked four days. And then … they blow, punch, kicking all of my body," he said.

John Glenn, now 36-years-old, says he was arrested in the early 1990's while a biology student at Rangoon University for handing out political pamphlets.

Glenn, a Burmese whose parents named him after an American astronaut, spent two years behind bars before being released in 1993.

He says through a clandestine network the association provides financial assistance, job training and psychological and physical rehabilitation to prisoners and their families in Burma. The help continues after prisoners are freed.

"Even though they are released from the prison they couldn't get a job easily, so we try to train them, such as computer training, and English courses so they could get a job easily," said John Glenn.

In 2005, AAPP provided funds to 75 children of former political prisoners for education expenses. This year, Glenn says, it hopes to provide 200 scholarships.

AAPP is partly funded by the Dutch government and the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.

Next to its small office in a residential compound is a museum the association hopes will inform the public about what it says are the horrors that Burma's prisoners face.

The museum's white-washed walls are lined with photographs documenting aspects of Burma's recent political history: the crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988; the faces of more than 150 current political prisoners.

The display includes a set of six-kilogram shackles similar to those worn by prisoners, along with sketches of the punishments they undergo. There are chess pieces prisoners carve from soap, and items woven from the plastic bags the prisoners' families are allowed to bring them during brief visits each month.

Glenn tells visitors that prisoners are allowed out of their cells for only 20 minutes a day - once in the morning and once in the evening.

He says the cells stink, and the threat of disease is never far away, due to antiquated toilet facilities and the poor prison diet.

"We only receive two meals a day. For our lunch rice, bean soup, fish paste. For our dinner vegetable soup, rice and fish paste. And every Thursday they provide a piece of meat, which is only three ounces, and they provide only one egg a week," he explained. "So how could we survive with these meals for many years?"

Glenn says that between 1988 and 2006, 125 political prisoners died in Burmese detention due to ill treatment.

A plaque on the wall is dedicated to Leo Nicols, who died in prison in 1996. Nicols was not an opposition activist but was sentenced to three years jail for having an unregistered telephone and facsimile in his home.

The Australian had been a long-time resident of Burma and was a close friend of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A businessman and honorary consul for several European countries, he was arrested in April 1996 and died two months later.

Diplomats, rights activists and United Nations officials say Burma continues to hold large numbers of political prisoners, despite international pressure to free them.

"From 2005 to this year they are still arresting. Because in 2004 they released many of the political prisoners but the amount of the political prisoners is still the same. So it means they are still arresting," he noted.

The military government has shown no signs of giving into demands it release the prisoners.

Instead, it has extended the prison terms or the house arrest of many prominent detainees, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and NLD deputy chairman Tin Oo.

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