Authorities crushed at least 15 protests by political prisoners since Myanmar coup

The crackdowns came in response to peaceful protests in solidarity with anti-junta activists.

Authorities have violently cracked down on at least 15 peaceful protests by political prisoners in the 18 months since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, according to an investigation by RFA Burmese.

The incidents – which authorities termed “riots” – occurred in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, as well as Mandalay’s Ohbo Prison, Tharrawaddy Prison, Kalay Prison, Pathein Prison, Bago Prison and Pyay Prison, RFA learned through an analysis of local news reports and interviews with family members of political prisoners.

Authorities killed at least seven prisoners in a single incident at Kalay Prison in March this year, which residents of the area said was the result of a “crackdown on those protesting ill-treatment” at the facility.

Sources with knowledge of the situation told RFA that in another recent incident, guards beat 19 youths in Ohbo Prison who had been on hunger strike since the beginning of August to protest their detention and then denied them access to medical treatment.

“The protesters were shot with slingshots and kicked all over their bodies,” a Mandalay-based member of the All Burma Federation of Student Union, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told RFA.

“Female political prisoners also face all kinds of threats [at the prison]. I heard of various issues like the installation of CCTV cameras in the women's dormitory.”

One family member of a former political prisoner, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said that prison authorities receive orders to suppress prisoners and identify members of the armed resistance.

“Some prison staff said let’s see how persistent these guys are, how much pain they can take, etc. Then they would give a beating, all the time saying, ‘Let’s see how much we can hit you and how much you can take.’ Asking and hitting,” the family member told RFA.


History of protests
A former political prisoner, who was recently released from Insein Prison, told RFA that Myanmar has a unique history of prison protests – with prisoners fighting against military rule from inside the walls of detention.

“Every time something happens outside, there are repercussions inside the prison walls. What do people in prison do? They sing anti-junta songs … They are still doing it now,” the prisoner said. “Some were beaten and some sent to solitary confinement. It's a lot of struggle.”

After the junta executed four prominent activists in July – the first judicial executions in more than 30 years – prisoners on death row are experiencing renewed trauma and fear about their own fates, he added.

RFA called officials of the Prison Department in Yangon for comment but received no response.

However, a former prison warden, who did not want to be named, told RFA that political prisoners have changed their style of protest since the executions.

“After the executions … the actions of the political forces in prisons have changed. They do not have direct confrontations with the prison authorities like before … They stopped such actions as protests and riots and instead, they carry out ‘silent strikes,’” the former warden said.

“For example, they take food from the prison because if they refuse, it’d amount to a protest. They take the food but they don’t eat it.”

The former warden added that prison authorities now attempt to break up protests using slingshots and beatings in violation of clauses protecting the rights of inmates in Myanmar’s Prison Act of 1899, which he said are rarely ever observed.

A revolutionary spirit

According to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, authorities have arrested at least 15,268 civilians since the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup, mostly during peaceful anti-junta protests.

Political prisoners in Myanmar report being regularly subjected to hard labor, beatings, and cruel treatment, including being shackled inside of prison and being denied access to clean water.

Families of political prisoners have called for international organizations like the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to investigate prison conditions, which they say violate the human rights of inmates. The ICRC reported a few months ago that it had met with the junta several times to discuss the situation in the country’s prisons, but has not been granted access to the facilities.

Former political prisoner Tun Kyi told RFA that no matter how severely the authorities oppress the country’s activists, “they can only be physically imprisoned.”

“The spirit of the [anti-junta] Spring Revolution can never be imprisoned. And there is no denying that we are fighting with such spirits.”

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Nawar Nemeh.