RANGOON— After a seven-year hiatus, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will once again be allowed to visit prisoners in Burma. The ICRC previously started assessing conditions for inmates in 1999, but the former ruling junta put a sudden end to this access in 2005.
Former political prisoners have welcomed the resumption of the visits, saying it is an “essential” form of moral and health support for inmates, while human rights advocates say it offers a chance to reform Burma’s notorious penal system.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, Bart Vermeiren, deputy head of the ICRC in Burma, said the government had initiated contact with ICRC in November, when President Thein Sein’s Office for the first time publicly invited the aid group to resume prison visits.
“The government opened the dialogue, their exact reasons for this I don’t know,” he said. “They are opening up [the country] and so they are opening up to the ICRC. We will now plan a test visit in the near future, maybe in January. Hopefully, we will go back to the situation before 2005.”
In November 2005, the ICRC complained that the junta-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Association insisted on accompanying aid workers during their visits.
These were then suspended because ICRC protocols require that access is confidential and unsupervised. The aid group has since repeatedly requested access to the prisons.
This hiatus has left the ICRC with little knowledge of the current condition of many prisoners, according to Vermeiren. “Stopping prison visits is not common … [and] seven years is a long gap,” he said. “Hopefully we can start prison visits soon and we can address this big knowledge gap.”
After 2005, the ICRC continued to facilitate monthly family visits with prisoners and it helped arrange 3,000 of these in 2012. “The visits are now going down a bit because a lot of people were released, including a lot of political prisoners,” Vermeien said, adding that last year the ICRC was also allowed to enter prisons to renovate infrastructure. It refurbished three prisons with new water, sewage and solar power supplies.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) has said conditions in Burma’s prisons are extremely harsh and inmates suffer from major health risks due to disease, malnutrition, poor sanitation, unclean water and lack of healthcare. Beatings, torture and other maltreatment are common, and many prisoners die during detention.
Vermeiren declined to comment on current conditions as the IRCR would have to first assess prisons through its visits before making an official appraisal.
When foreign ICRC workers visit, prisoners are registered and they can air their grievances and personal problems in private, and also request healthcare and improvements in their conditions. “It covers anything that they want to discuss with us. And we might address some of these issues with authorities in private,” Vermeiren said.
ICRC visits focus on what it calls “security detainees,” which are defined as people arrested in war and violence-related situations. It refrains from using the term “political prisoner.”
In Burma between 1999 and 2005, the ICRC visited prisoners in ethnic conflict zones and met with many prisoners of conscience. Pyone Cho, a leading member of 88 Generation Students movement who was incarcerated from 1989 until 2003, said the regular visits were a key form of support for inmates.
“They registered all political prisoners and they record their health conditions,” he said. “We share with them many of our conditions … They collect our desires and sent them to the Home Affairs Ministry,” said Pyone Cho. The ICRC, he explained, could for example help prisoners obtain reading material—an important perk for those inside.
“They give moral support and kindness to prisoners. And they can protect the political prisoners from mistreatment” by monitoring their condition, he said. “For me and other political prisoners it was essential.”
“After the end of the ICRC visits [in 2005], they [authorities] behaved worse to the political prisoners … they neglect their living conditions,” Pyone Cho revealed.
Before Thein Sein took office in March 2011, there were believed to be more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, as well as many prisoners held for security reasons in ethnic conflict zones. Following the recent release of prisoners under his current reformist administration, the AAPP says 218 political prisoners remain incarcerated and more than 100 are facing trial, mostly in Arakan and Kachin states.
“Political prisoners are treated especially harshly. It is still common practice, for example, to place them in extreme solitary confinement, remote prisons far from doctors and their loved ones, alongside violent criminal offenders, or in cells traditionally used to house lepers. It is a rite of passage for political prisoners to suffer extreme physical abuse,” Marcia Robiou, AAPP’s Human Rights Advocacy and Research Advisor said in an email.
According to the Home Affairs Ministry’s prison department, there are 45 prisons and 46 labor camps in Burma, which held 50,179 men and 5,407 women in 2012. AAPP questions these figures and says that based on prisoner accounts there are “at least 100,000 prisoners,” while it believes there are 109 labor camps, which are notoriously harsh.
“Monitoring labor camps is also extraordinarily difficult; no independent monitor has ever been allowed in one,” said Robiou. “Being sent to a labor camp is often seen as tantamount to receiving a death sentence. Gaining entry into labor camps should be a matter of priority for the ICRC.
“The re-introduction of the ICRC into Burma is hopefully a sign that the government of Burma is moving towards dismantling the secrecy and isolation that has long surrounded Burma’s prisons,” she added.
“We sincerely hope that the ICRC will put an end to the high rate of prisoners dying unnecessary anonymous deaths, and force the government of Burma to seriously reform the prison system.”