Myanmar Coup Reopens Traumatic Wounds For Former Political Prisoners

Dissidents who survived military rule recall a dark past and reflect on what protesters could face in months ahead.
Myanmar coup
Police carry a protester as they arrest her during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on Feb. 9, 2021. Photo:

Seeing soldiers deployed in Myanmar’s biggest cities dredged up painful memories for Aung Kyaw Phyo, a former political prisoner who assumed the days of junta rule in his country were long gone.

As a student activist in the 1990s, he spent four years behind bars in dreaded Insein prison, where he endured torture and inhumane conditions. Since the military seized power on Feb. 1, he fears others will face the same fate, or worse.


“I remember, some of my friends were tortured too, then when they asked for water, the military didn’t even give them anything. They had to drink water from the toilet,” he told VICE World News from his home in Yangon, describing the abuses he suffered. He was cut off from family, denied the opportunity to read or write, and forced to wear shackles for two weeks as punishment for trying to learn a foreign language from another prisoner. 

Even when not in jail, life was defined by the controls of an authoritarian state, with widespread surveillance, fear of arrest and no freedom of speech.

Once international economic sanctions were put in place, there were little economic opportunities, he explained. Instead, members of the military apparatus used their power to get rich at the expense of ordinary citizens or exploiting natural resources.

“I remember, some of my friends were tortured too, then when they asked for water, the military didn’t even give them anything. They had to drink water from the toilet.”

He worries this could all happen again.

“When the military took over a few days ago, this all once again came to our minds,” he said.

Myanmar’s short-lived experience with democracy is under siege after the arrests of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other top officials, sparking daily nationwide protests across diverse segments of the population. The new junta-led government has banned large gatherings, announced a yearlong state of emergency and threatened protesters to “leave or be dispersed by force,” ominous warnings from a military that has an appalling track record of violence and persecution. 


On Tuesday security forces fired rubber bullets and live ammunition into the air in the capital, leaving a woman in critical condition, according to reports that could not be independently confirmed. Similar scenes were documented in Myanmar’s second biggest city Mandalay, as police fired water cannons and dragged protesters away.


Police fire water cannons at protesters as they continue to demonstrate against the Feb. 1 military coup in the capital Naypyidaw on February 9, 2021. Photo: STR / AFP

The head of the new junta, Min Aung Hlaing, is not known for compromise and already stands accused of overseeing a genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in 2017. Conflict has also persisted for decades between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed insurgents fighting for autonomy in border regions.

Over the last few days, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the biggest uprising since the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007. The new wave of resistance, dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement, sprang up quickly. It started with medical workers but expanded to almost all corners of Myanmar society, from skateboarders to railway workers. A general strike is affecting hospitals, schools and government offices.

Ko Bo Kyi, the founder of local non-profit the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), predicts a “wave of arrests” as demonstrations continue and there is no sign of a solution. At least 170 people have been detained in relation to the coup as of Feb. 8, according to a running tally by AAPP. The military has defended the takeover by arguing that November elections were marred by fraud. Observers dispute these claims and agree that Suu Kyi’s party won easily in a repeat triumph from 2015, the first free and fair election since the end of direct military rule.


Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb. 9, 2021. Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP

Reporter Lay Lay Mon, who has spent a total of 12 years behind bars while reporting on protests during past military regimes in Myanmar, offered cautious optimism that the army could choose a different tact than past crackdowns.

“On the other hand, if there is violence, the people of Burma will have to learn more about what a military dictator is,” she said, using the country’s previous name.

Another political activist from the 1988 days, Let Yar Tun, told VICE World News that the military government could not have been prepared for the response on the streets, and that worker strikes happening throughout the country have already made an impact.

According to local media outlet Frontier Myanmar, branches of Myanmar’s largest bank KBZ had to temporarily close after many staff members did not show up or attended demonstrations.

“Yesterday [Monday], altogether around 94 cities and towns took to the streets,” Let Yar Tun said. “The junta seems out of political balance as they have never experienced this kind of one-week long stable nonviolent response, like banging on pots and pans everywhere, every evening,” he added, referring to a nightly noise barrage aimed at showing opposition to the coup.

Let Yar Tun worked for the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), an opposition group that still opposes the military today. He was first thrown in prison from 1991 to 1995 for his activism. Once released, he continued. He was then imprisoned a second time, charged with high treason and sentenced to death in 1998. But in 2012, he was freed in an amnesty just before then-U.S. President Barack Obama made an unprecedented visit to the country.

“Our biggest concern is that the junta will definitely provoke violence at one point sooner or later,” he said. “The [military] could strike and transform the protests into violence, then they will counter back with more violence.” 

As the Civil Disobedience campaign continues to affect Myanmar’s economic and public infrastructure, it’s possible that junta chief Ming Aung Hlaing could offer some form of concession, he speculated.

“In the long run, and as of now, government staff are involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement, and they are protesting,” he said. “How will the government survive if they don’t get any support?”

Min Aung Hlaing addressed the nation on Monday for the first time since the power grab, claiming that this was a “different” situation than past regimes, vowing to hold new elections and form a “true and disciplined democracy.”

But Aung Kyaw Phyo doesn’t buy the rhetoric.

“There will be more arrests for sure,” he said. “That’s why I’m warning my friends and the next generation, don't underestimate the military dictators. They will do everything they can.”