Guards beat Muslim political prisoner to death in Myanmar’s Insein Prison

A Muslim political prisoner and former parliamentary candidate accused of plotting acts of terrorism was beaten to death by prison guards in Myanmar last year, according to Sean Turnell, the former economic advisor to deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Khin Maung Shwe, 44, had been sentenced to 65 years in prison for allegedly plotting to blow up parliament and a shopping center in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon in 2016.

Turnell, an Australian national who was was released from prison by the junta in a general amnesty on Nov. 17 after nearly two years behind bars, said in a social media post last week that Khin Maung Shwe, also known as Ya Kut Bai, was killed after trying to mediate in a fight in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison.

“My dear friend Khin Maung Shwe,” Turnell wrote in a post to his Facebook account. “He stood up for me. He kept me healthy. He kept me sane. He saved my life.”

“He was beaten and kicked to death by prison guards in Insein, a month after I was transferred up to Naypyidaw.”

Turnell called Khin Maung Shwe “a hero who I will honor as long as I live,” and praised him for his kindness during their time together in Insein Prison, where the Australian was serving a three-year jail term for violating the Myanmar Government Secrets Act, despite being officially appointed by the National League for Democracy-led government.

“Thank you to various people in Myanmar who helped me track down some of the circumstances of my friend’s murder,” he wrote.

Beaten with iron rods

RFA Burmese spoke with former political prisoner Thiha Win Tin who confirmed that Khin Maung Shwe died on Nov. 18, 2021, from internal injuries he suffered in a brutal beating a day earlier.

After intervening in a fight between fellow inmates and two men jailed for the assassination of NLD legal expert Ko Ni in 2017, Khin Maung Shwe was ordered by the prison warden to be dragged to his office and beaten with iron rods.

Afterwards, he was placed in solitary confinement without receiving treatment for his injuries and discovered dead the following day, Thiha Win Tin said.

“When the prison notified his family, they said that he died of heart failure,” Thiha Win Tin said. “It was definitely not a heart failure. He was beaten to death by the prison guards and fellow inmates.”

Thiha Win Tin claimed that among those who beat Khin Maung Shwe were prison guards Tun Win Ktike, Soe Zin Aung, and Myint Win Maung, who he said “hated him for being a believer in Islam.”

Myanmar’s 55.8 million people are predominantly Buddhists. Muslims, who make up slightly more than 4% of the population, regularly face discrimination in society.

On Nov. 18, 2021, prison authorities notified Khin Maung Shwe’s relatives of his death, a person close to the family who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA, and when they went to retrieve his corpse they found serious injuries to his head, face, and other parts of his body.

RFA contacted Khin Maung Shwe's family members by phone, but they refused to answer questions about his death citing security concerns and emotional distress.

Little regulation of prisons

Kyee Myint, a human rights lawyer and legal expert, told RFA that prison officials in Myanmar, including those in Insein Prison, regularly ignore regulations and intentionally abuse and oppress political prisoners.

“They don’t understand the prison regulations, nor do they need to. They just have to follow orders,” he said. “In the prisons, they use stooges [from the inmate population] who bully and coerce political prisoners. They govern the prison that way, not by law.”

Kyee Myint noted that inmates Kyi Lin and Tin Myint, who were convicted of assassinating NLD high court lawyer Ko Ni, were Buddhist nationalists with close ties to the junta and were given special privileges by authorities in Insein prison.

Attempts by RFA to contact junta Prison Department spokesman Naing Win for comment on the killing of Khin Maung Shwe in Insein prison, went unanswered on Tuesday.

A former prison warden who declined to be named for security reasons told RFA that prison staff are expressly forbidden from beating inmates in Myanmar, a practice that was abolished in 1972.

“There is absolutely no right to beat prisoners, according to existing prison laws and manuals,” the former warden said. “Depending on the degree of wrongdoing by prisoners, we can only give punishments such as solitary confinement, hard labor, and reduction of food rations.”

A ‘natural leader’

When asked about his fellow inmate who occupied the cell next to his in Insein Prison, Turnell told RFA via email that Khin Maung Shwe was the most admirable human being he had ever known and the kind of person who could have changed Myanmar for the better.

“[He was] smart, resourceful, empathetic, and with a practical and intuitive understanding of economic policy-making to boot,” Turnell wrote.

“I had nothing that I needed to cope with a situation way beyond my experience or resources,” he said. “In numerous acts of incredible generosity he shared whatever he had, and defended me against some of the guards who tried to intimidate this 'foreigner.' He had not much himself except his courage, compassion and humanity.”

Turnell said Khin Maung Shwe helped him secure food, taught him how to keep his clothes clean and dry, and “provided me with all the implements I needed to stay alive” while incarcerated.

“He was a natural leader,” he wrote. “I never want this lovely man to be forgotten. He exemplifies everything I love about Myanmar, and the ability of its people to keep the struggle for freedom alive.”

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Malcolm Foster.