Thayarwaddy Prison, Myanmar’s ‘hell for political prisoners’

For nearly a century, the notorious detention centre in Bago Region has been a symbol of successive regimes’ oppression

San Tun had spent more than a year in Yangon’s Insein Prison for taking part in anti-coup protests when he was suddenly informed one day that he was going to be transferred. He was given just minutes to gather his few belongings before being sent to a large dormitory along with around 150 other inmates.

It wasn’t until 3am that the prisoners were finally loaded up for transport. Shackled together in pairs, they filed into five prison vehicles that were waiting to take them to Thayarwaddy Prison, located some 100km to the north in Bago Region.

As soon as they arrived at the prison, they were given a crash course in what to expect during their time there. Some 40 prison officers, each holding a stick, had formed a gauntlet that the new arrivals were told to pass through with their heads lowered in submission.

As if to add shame to the pain that they inflicted with each blow, the prison staffers shouted, “You, political prisoners!” over and over again, recalled San Tun.

After this ordeal, the prisoners were forced to run 200 metres to the prison’s main office—no easy task with shackles on their legs. Lifting their chains with one hand, they had to hold all of their possessions with the other. If they dropped anything and stopped to pick it up, they were beaten again.

“And the whole time, we had to keep our heads down and not look left or right,” said San Tun.

Once they reached the main office, the prisoners were forced to sit in rows on the dusty ground. Sweltering under the hot sun, they were surrounded by prison guards and hardened convicts serving time for crimes such as murder and armed robbery. Prisoners who failed to maintain the proper prison-style sitting posture were subjected to yet another beating.

After about an hour like this, a fair-skinned man in his 40s arrived, flanked by two army dogs. As he stood there with a cigarette in his mouth, everyone fell silent.

“This is Thayarwaddy Prison. You are powerless here. This is your hell. If you don’t behave, your life will end with a stroke of my pen,” he said.

The front gate of Thayarwaddy Prison (Supplied)

Sadistic sermons

The man was Ye Yint Naing, a former director of Myanmar’s Prisons Department who now served as warden of one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

Before the military seized power in February 2021, Ye Yint Naing was known for his congenial relationship with members of the press, who often turned to him for comment on prison-related issues. After the coup, however, he became a central figure in the newly installed regime’s system of oppression. Journalists—including some he knew personally—have been among the victims of his brutal mistreatment of prisoners.

Addressing the latest batch of political prisoners to come under his control, he continued speaking:

“We have many solitary confinement cells here, enough to hold all of you. If you violate the prison’s regulations or security protocols, that’s where every single one of you will end up.”

San Tun listened intently to this lecture, which went on for more than an hour. He also noticed that there was something peculiar about the way Ye Yint Naing stood and walked as he spoke. Only later did he learn why that was.

“He was from the army, and he had lost a foot. I’m not sure if it was from a landmine or a gunshot. But he was using a prosthesis, so he couldn’t walk properly,” he said.

Thayarwaddy Prison warden Ye Yint Naing and his wife Su Hla Nyo make an offering of cash at a Buddhist monastery (Supplied)

San Tun also learned that the dogs that accompanied Ye Yint Naing that day had been trained to attack on command.

“The dogs were allowed to roam the prison freely. Sometimes they bit prison staff, but their main purpose was to attack political prisoners who demanded their human rights,” he said.

Thayarwaddy inmates were routinely denied their basic rights. Many were forced to spend their first few weeks at the prison in solitary confinement cells. It was also common to see prisoners with foot-long iron rods attached to their leg cuffs, which served to further restrict their ability to walk.

Another former political prisoner who spoke to Myanmar Now recalled that Ye Yint Naing liked to repeat his “Thayarwaddy is a hell for prisoners” speech to those confined to solitary cells.

“He kept telling us there was nothing we could do about our situation,” he said, noting that while he delivered these sadistic sermons, Ye Yint Naing wore an amulet given to him by Mong Pong Sayadaw, a prominent Buddhist monk.

An archive photo shows two prisoners, including one with an iron rod between his feet, performing hard labour at a stone quarry in Mon State (Myanmar Now)

‘A cursed place’

Forced to work 24-hour shifts with only one two-hour break, the prison staff often took out their frustration on inmates, particularly those being held for supporting the resistance movement led by the National Unity Government (NUG).

“Sometimes they would line us up and shout, ‘What is your NUG?’ Then they would say, ‘Because of you, we can’t go out. Because of you, our families are suffering!’ And while they said this, they would beat us,” one former prisoner recalled.

Despite this hostile attitude towards political prisoners, however, some prison staff were also heard cursing the military for staging a coup that resulted in an explosion in the prison population. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an exiled advocacy group, more than 24,000 people have been arrested over the past two and a half years for opposing the regime, of whom 19,687 were still behind bars as of early August.

But such criticism was relatively muted, no doubt because many of the prison staff had previously served in the army. The presence of such ex-military personnel within the prison system contributed a great deal to the deplorable conditions experienced by prisoners.

A female prisoner nicknamed Black Rose, who was a protest leader in Yangon before her arrest, told Myanmar Now that she would never forget the first time she saw shackled prisoners being forced to hop from the prison gate to the main office. 

“Thayarwaddy Prison is a cursed place for me. When new prisoners arrived there, it was like a bad omen. There was a feeling of debasement,” she said.

Women were not spared, she added. Sometimes, for no reason at all, staff would start hurling curses at prisoners inside the women’s dormitories and even attack them with slingshots.

“Sixteen girls transferred from Mandalay were beaten until their backs were covered in blood. Ye Yint Naing is one of the cruellest men alive. He’s not just bad to the prisoners. I’ve heard prison staff say that he is brutal with them, too,” said Black Rose, who has also served time in Insein and Kyaikmaraw prisons.

An archive photo shows a prison guard (centre) wielding a stick as he supervises prisoners doing hard labour at a camp in Mon State (Myanmar Now)

An oppressive history

One of the worst incidents witnessed by a former Thayarwaddy prisoner involved a man who was there on criminal charges.

“The guy was forced to run five times around the prison with an iron rod between his feet. While he was running, a staff member on a bicycle whipped him with a cord. It’s difficult to even walk with that rod between your feet, but they actually made him run. His legs were covered with blood. When he collapsed and said he couldn’t go any further, they started beating him,” said another former political prisoner who did not want to be named.

There have also been reports of prisoners being tortured to death. On May 21, a young man named Pyae Phyo Win who was serving a seven-year sentence for incitement and possession of explosives died at Thayarwaddy Prison of unknown causes. His family was not permitted to claim his body—usually a sign that prison authorities wished to conceal his injuries.

Thayarwaddy has a long history as a centre of oppression in Myanmar. In 1931, Saya San, the leader of a peasant revolt against the country’s then colonial rulers, was executed there, as were many others who joined the struggle for independence.

Later, it would serve as a detention centre for members of the Communist Party of Burma, which was declared an illegal organisation just months after Myanmar regained its independence from the British in January 1948.

Among its most famous inmates was celebrated writer Kyaw Mya Than, who published an account of his time there under the title “Hell Cells from Thayarwaddy Prison,” in which he described the hardships of prisoners subjected to daily torture and excessive labour.

It retained its status as one of Myanmar’s most hated prisons in the wake of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Many who took part in that attempt to end decades of military rule were locked up in Thayarwaddy, where they suffered the same fate as previous generations of political prisoners.

Today, a new junta has continued this shameful history, once again establishing Thayarwaddy Prison as a monument to the brutality of successive regimes. Now, nearly a century after Saya San’s death, it still remains to be seen when the cycle of oppression that this prison represents will finally be broken.

An aerial view of Thayarwaddy Prison in Bago Region (Google Earth)

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