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A review by J. Mills

Burma’s Gulag under the Junta
A review of Ten Years On: The Life and Views of a Burmese Student Political Prisoner
by Moe Aye

(Dr. Janell Mills, graduate of the Universities of Queensland and London and Honorary Research Associate in Economic History at the University of Sydney, is a long-term student of Burma. She studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for her doctorate on 19th century Burmese history and has written a number of articles on Burma. The most recent is a chapter on modern Burmese women in a book on Asian women soon to be published by Allen Unwin. She has taught and researched extensively in the history of Southeast Asia, specialising in that of Burma and Malaysia.)

This collection of articles by Moe Aye on his experiences as a political prisoner in Burma spans the decade following the 1988 popular pro-democracy uprising and its consequent bloody suppression by the military which had been in control since 1962. No one knows for sure how many were killed in 1988 but estimates range from 2000 to 10000. The brutality of that year did not end then but has continued as the ruling military junta has endeavoured to stamp out all opposition while at the same time presiding over a disintegrating economy and society. The book focuses on the experiences of Moe Aye and others in Burma’s notorious Insein Special Prison but this is more than another addition to the swelling volume of world literature on institutionalised state violation of human rights. The book also offers insights into the impact military repression and authoritarianism has had on the lives and aspirations of ordinary Burmese. Particularly disturbing are Moe Aye’s revelations about the disrupted and debased education system under military rule. This personal account of Burma fleshes out the dry statistics of the economic reports that caused Burma to be classified by the United Nations in 1987 as one of the poorest nations in the world, a Least Developed Country, despite once being regarded as the Golden Land, potentially one of the richest and most promising countries of Asia. Some of these articles have been published elsewhere but their republication in this volume places them more fully in the context of the personal experience and perspective of the author.

Moe Aye was an engineering student in his fifth year at the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1987 when he joined student riots over the government’s sudden devaluation of the currency. This resulted in his expulsion from the university and involvement in the mass uprising of August 8 in 1988 and subsequent student and pro-democratic political activities. He was arrested in November 1990 and sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour in Insein Prison. His chilling description of his arrest, interrogation and torture preludes the chronicling of his life as a political prisoner and that of others. This includes the poignant, previously published, account of the last days of Leo Nichols, the elderly and diabetic honorary consul to Denmark. A friend of pro-democratic NLD leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Leo Nichols was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for having an unauthorised fax machine. After repeated and exhaustive interrogation and no medical treatment, he died within a month of his imprisonment. The accounts of other political prisoners, monks, journalists, such as U Tin Win, parliamentarians, such U Sein Hla Oo, and student leaders, such as Thet Winn Aung and Min Ko Naing, illustrate the absurdity of the situation in current Burma where the brightest and best are tortured and incarcerated in terrible conditions. Guilty only of wanting a freer and better society, they are more harshly treated than convicted murderers and drug dealers. Min Ko Naing, chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) in 1988, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in solitary confinement. Thet Win Aung, elected as General Secretary of the ABFSU in 1994, was arrested and sentenced early this year to fifty-two years imprisonment - more than twice the length of time imposed on Nelson Mandela. Moe Aye himself developed heart trouble after his six years in prison. Too often tuberculosis, asthma, AIDS, and death are the ancillary sentences for Burma’s political prisoners. Apart from the barbarity of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) personnel, the book also reveals the prison as microcosm of the wider world where wardens caught in a web of conflicting loyalties risk becoming inmates. It also highlights the courage, tenacity, comradery, resilience, and resourcefulness of the prisoners. In the tradition of some World War II prisoner of war camps, Moe Aye and his colleagues established a clandestine ‘prison university’ study regime. Wry humour gleams occasionally amid the darkness as prisoners describe the prisons of Burma since 1990 as the country’s parliament, universities and monasteries, filled as they are with monks, parliamentarians, and students. Moe Aye’s discussion of student life in and out of prison reveals the sharp deterioration of Burma’s education system in the last decade as the opening of schools depends on ‘the weather of politics’. University degrees are awarded for non-involvement in politics, not on academic prowess and a prison sentence precludes the resumption of formal study. Since 1988 there have not been three full academic years. Even before this the situation was bad with teachers poorly trained and paid and facilities inadequate. Moe Aye also refers to its pillaged and distorted economy where there is ‘a huge budget for the extension of the military, the secret police, interrogation centers and prisons’ but ‘a small budget for social welfare, medical care and education’. The opening article, ‘My Guiding Star’ is a portrait of and tribute to the author’s mother. A staunch Buddhist, she emerges as a strong and important influence on her son’s development. Denied an education herself, she was anxious and ambitious for her son to achieve what she had not and willingly made sacrifices. Proud when he was accepted into the Rangoon Institute of Technology, she eagerly awaited his becoming an engineer. A turning point for her was the 1987 currency devaluation when ‘the government… robbed its own people’. When her son’s involvement in student riots against the government caused him to be dismissed from the university and ultimately landed him in prison, she supported him as best she could. On his release, she referred with pride to her son’s six years of learning at the ‘Life Institute and Prison University’. Realising he had no future in the junta’s Burma, despite her own advancing years, she encouraged his departure to work ‘for the people’ in Thailand. With the publication of this volume Moe Aye has shed light on some of the darkness that exists in so much of Burma today and though he has not become the engineer his mother dreamed of, she has much to be proud of in the son who endured so much and who has written so lucidly in this sad account of Burma to-day. This is an important book. Not only does it detail the inhumane conditions of political prisoners in Burma to-day it documents how adversely the current regime compares with previous ones and how wantonly it is squandering the country’s most precious capital - its youth and its future.