Prominent Myanmar democracy activist Mya Aye, 56, was among the nearly 6,000 prisoners pardoned in a mass amnesty the ruling junta announced November 17. In an exclusive interview with VOA, he described his arrest and harrowing conditions of his imprisonment, including time in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison.
Mya Aye was arrested February 1, 2021, the day the military coup overthrew the democratic government. His release under the amnesty, coinciding with Myanmar National Day, was only two months away from his previously scheduled release date.
He had, on the day of the coup, been driving around downtown Yangon because he had heard a coup was in progress.
Having heard that the army had come to his house, “I went home because I didn’t believe I had violated the law and didn’t need to hide anything from authorities,” he told VOA.
However, he was arrested and taken to the Ye Kyi Ai interrogation center, near Insein township. There, he found out that close aides to the previous government’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and members of her National League for Democracy party’s Central Executive Committee, members of the Yangon region government, and Yangon Region Parliament were being held.
He told VOA he was not physically tortured there, as he was arrested very early after the coup, but was interrogated for several hours by military intelligence while they pressed him on his political beliefs. He said he heard that other, younger, people, arrested later by the army, were tortured.
While detained in the interrogation center, he said, he could hear protests in the streets outside.
“We heard people chanting slogans and singing political songs against the coup from outside of the interrogation center. So we guessed that something was happening,” he said.
After being held for 35 days in the interrogation center, he was sent to the Insein prison in March along with other detained politicians.
“I had thought that I would be kept in prison since I was arrested because of my experience under the previous military regime,” said Mya Aye, who had been arrested twice before during previous periods of military rule.
He was taken to an annex jail where he met many detained youth protesters and learned about the security forces’ brutal crackdown on protests.
Human Rights Watch reported in June 2021 that security forces had detained thousands and subjected many to torture, beatings, and other ill-treatment since the coup. According to the report, Myanmar military and police often hold detainees in custody for extended periods, in crowded, dirty interrogation centers and prisons.
They were brutally tortured in many ways, including beatings, cigarette burning, prolonged stress positions, and gender-based violence, according to the report.
After two days in the annex jail, Mya Aye was moved to a concrete cell in the main prison where some detained ministers of the ousted NLD government were being held. Each prisoner was in a separate cell measuring 2½ by 3½ meters, with only a wooden cot and a chamber pot. Prisoners were allowed to walk and shower for 15 minutes a day.
In July, Mya Aye caught COVID-19, which was spreading quickly though the overcrowded prison. Although he did not suffer badly, another political prisoner, Nyan Win, an NLD Central Executive Committee member, died from it after being transferred from Insein to Yangon General Hospital.
Mya Aye said he also received inadequate follow-up medical care after having major heart surgery before the coup, leading to a psoriasis infection from a wound on his foot in October 2021. He was finally admitted to Insein hospital outside of the prison.
Insein has not allowed prisoners to have visitors since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mya Aye had not seen his family for almost his entire two-year prison term, although prison officials briefly allowed his family to see him while he was hospitalized.
As Mya Aye and other political prisoners in his cell were kept incommunicado, he said they were unaware of protests by other Insein political prisoners.
“We couldn’t see what happened in the prison from our cell, and there was no TV in our cell, and so we relied on the state-owned news newspapers for outside information,” he told VOA.
“But the prison authorities sometimes tore out parts of the newspapers which had stories about arrests, killings and other significant events relating to the ongoing conflict. We would beg them not to tear the newspaper, and eventually they did stop.”
He said that he only knew what was going on outside the prison when he met other detained protesters at a court inside Insein prison. He was charged under Section 505c of the Penal Code for inciting hate toward an ethnicity or a community and sentenced to two years this March 2021.
“I already realized that they won’t release us and would charge us with something, and I had nothing to hide about that. The charge against me related to an email that I sent to a Chinese official in 2014 about our country’s peace process,” he said. At that time, the civilian-military government was working on a cease-fire agreement with ethnic armed groups with Chinese government assistance.
He said he was put into a cell near a ward with many young protesters and was surprised to see how many had been arrested, and how they had been treated compared to his prison terms under previous military governments.
"When I looked at them from my cell, they had bruises on their faces, some of their arms were in casts, and their heads were bandaged,” he said.
“Their situations under this current regime were really worse than the previous regime.”
Executed fellow activists – ‘like my brothers’
Mya Aye said he was “really shocked” when the junta executed four activists in July, including two high-profile activists he was close to — Kyaw min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, who rose to prominence in 1988 student uprisings, and Pyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop artist turned member of parliament widely admired among Myanmar youth.
“They were like my brothers,” he said, “We worked together for democratic transition in our country."
“I felt very sorrowful what happened to them. It was a really bad outcome for our country. For more than 30 years there was no death penalty in our country. So I was extremely worried about all the detained young people who could be facing the same situation as my friends.”
After his release, Mya Aye told the crowd outside the prison: “I will always stand together with the people of Myanmar.”
He said he still believes in nonviolence and vowed to keep working for the return of democracy in Myanmar.
“If I say honestly and openly, I still worry about being arrested again, but it cannot stop my belief that democracy is the best way for my country to have a better future, so I have no choice and will continue to express my political opinions and work for my country,” he said.
Mya Aye, a Muslim and a prominent leader of the 88 Generation Students Group led by Min Ko Naing, was first arrested in 1989 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment for his role as a student leader in the 1988 uprising. He was released in 1996 and continued campaigning for democracy in Burma. He was arrested again in 2007 with fellow student leaders and sentenced to 65 years and six months’ imprisonment.
Along with many other 88 Generation activists, Mya Aye was released on January 13, 2012. After his release in 2012 he remained politically active, often drawing the military’s anger. He was later detained amid the February 2021 military coup.