RANGOON — It was more than seven years ago that Mya Mya Aye talked her son for the last time. They chatted for an hour at a meeting area of Obo Prison in Mandalay. When they departed, the political prisoner said “Mum, take care of yourself.”
Ten months later, she saw him again. But Thet Win Aung was unable to greet her. Her youngest son was dead.
“I was worried about him dying and suffering during his detention. But it really happened,” the 83-year old mother said with a sigh. The family on Wednesday will mark the seventh anniversary of the death of its youngest member.
“All I can do now is just pray not to face that kind of bad time again,” she added, her voice shaking.
According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Thet Win Aung is among 130 political prisoners who have died in custody—often having been subjected to inhumane torture or having had medical treatment withheld—inside prisons across Burma since 1988, when the nation rose up in an attempt to topple one-party rule.
Family members said the 34-year old had suffered from heart disease and malaria after not receiving proper medical treatment. He was serving a 59-year prison sentence, beginning in 1998, for his political beliefs.
“He only had medicine provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] to rely on,” his father Win Maung told The Irrawaddy. “But with the government’s suspension on the ICRC’s prison visits at the time, his health seemed to deteriorate.”
Although it has been seven years now since the student activist succumbed to illness in prison in October 2006, Thet Win Aung’s death is still a cruel and tragic reminder of how political prisoners were mistreated in custody.
Prior to his transfer to Obo prison, Thet Win Aung served his sentence in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, where he was interrogated and tortured by military police. Then he was sent to Kalay prison in northwestern Burma, where he went on strike for prisoners’ rights. As a result, he was relocated to a more remote prison in Khamti, where malaria and other diseases are rampant.
He went on strike again to request transfer to another prison, but his demands were met with more torture. Family members said he couldn’t walk without assistance after the ordeal.
“My younger brother, Thet Win Aung, is just another victim of the harsh conditions we faced in Burma’s prisons,” said Pyone Cho of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (formerly known as ’88 Students Generation Group). Pyone Cho was five years older than his brother, and was himself a political prisoner for nearly 20 years before he was released in 2012.
“We had to fight for our survival in the prison. That’s what Thet Win Aung also went through,” he said. “That kind of tragedy shouldn’t be repeated again, especially at this time when we are going through a transition.”
Many political prisoners have been released since a nominally civilian government took power in Burma in 2011, with 245 freed this year. However, advocates say 135 prisoners of conscience remain incarcerated in Burma’s jails.
Family members remember Thet Win Aung as a hardworking student who loved to read and relished a challenge. He was also a devoted Buddhist who never felt reluctant to help friends in need. To his friends, he was a man of seriousness with a slight smile on his face. When they were in need, Thet Win Aung was ready to give what he could.
“He is a good boy with big heart” said his mother. For her, Thet Win Aung was a mummy’s boy. Whenever he wanted something, he approached her first. When he was politically active, she would stay awake until he returned home, often in the small hours of the morning, to let him in and feed him. When both sons became involved in politics in 1988 (at the time Thet Win Aung was in high school and Pyone Cho was a university student), all Mya Mya Aye could do was pray for them.
“They were not doing anything bad…. How could I stop them?” she said. “But I warned them to be careful whatever they did.”
According to one of his close friends, Min Zin, the late student activist was a good organizer. The two joined together to covertly organize a students’ union in their high school and contacted other high school and university student activists to coordinate during the 1988 uprising.
“He was very patient and very willing to listen to different ideas,” he said. “He was very calm and never dogmatic.”
When he was first arrested in 1989, despite being severely tortured, Thet Win Aung refused to reveal any information about other activists he worked with. Min Zin used to ask him how he could manage to stay strong in face of such attempts to breaking your spirit.
“He told me: ‘The most important thing that enables me to keep going despite the up and down of my emotions is that I never give up my self-respect and my commitment to my colleagues,’” Min Zin recounted. “Those words were very simple, but they’ve always stayed with me, deep in my heart.”
Early on the morning of Oct. 16, 2006, Pyone Cho was jolted awake in a cell at a government interrogation center.
“It was as if someone was pushing down on me hard. I took it as a bad omen that something bad was happening to someone in my family,” he explained.
He was not wrong. At nearly the same time, in a prison cell some 400 miles away, his baby brother collapsed and never came to.
The family blames the military regime for Thet Win Aung’s death, but seeking justice is another matter.
“If they really cared about the country, political prisoners, including my son, wouldn’t have died in the prison because every one of them was acting for the good of the country,” said Win Maung, the father.
“Naturally, there are many things that go against our wishes,” the 84-year old said. “Seeking justice is the same… It depends on time and the situation. I just want what happened to us never to repeat in our history…. Not only to us, but to all.”