Lucy Popescu

Khin Zaw Win

Khin Zaw Win has been in prison in Myanmar since 1994. Zaw Win (aka Kelvin) – interpreter, student, former speech and report writer for Unicef, and qualified dentist – was arrested on 4 July 1994 at Yangon airport as he prepared to leave for Singapore. It is believed that one of the reasons for his imprisonment was his support of the charismatic leader of the opposition party and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her supporters, as well as those who promote democracy and improved human rights, routinely suffer persecution at the hands of the military junta currently in power.

Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. After the Second World War, the Burmese, led by General Aung San, demanded complete political and economic independence from Britain. A constitution was completed in 1947 but General Aung San, and most of his cabinet, were assassinated before the constitution came into effect. Internal conflict led to a troubled democracy and in 1962 a left-wing army revolt led by General Ne Win deposed the government, leaving Burma under military rule. In 1988, rice shortages and popular discontent led to pro-democracy protests. These were brutally crushed, and a new military government calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power, renaming the country Myanmar in 1990. The SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997.

Myanmar’s appalling human-rights record is well documented worldwide. Under the SPDC there is a complete absence of democracy. Respect for the basic rights of freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of association are severely limited, and there is a large number of political prisoners. Other abuses that have been reported include arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, violations against women, forced labour, and the recruitment of child soldiers.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), gained a landslide victory in 1990 but was never allowed to come to power. Its leader, Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San), has suffered various restrictions on her activities since 1989. These have included imprisonment and being placed under house arrest.

Zaw Win worked for Unicef in Myanmar in the early 1990s before being granted a scholarship in June 1993 to study in Singapore for a Masters degree in Public Policy. At the time of his arrest, he was resident in Singapore, and had returned to Myanmar to carry out research for his thesis on the political situation there.

On his arrest, papers were seized from his luggage. The state-controlled government newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, reported in August that the material seized included computer disks and papers containing confidential reports on the Ministry of Energy. He was accused of carrying documents relating to the Burmese opposition movement, and of having contact with other dissidents such as author Daw San San Nwe, opposition figure U Khin Maung Swe, and the journalist U Sein Hla Oo. The group was accused of contacting foreign diplomats and journalists and sending them ‘news comments against or critical of the government’. Later reports suggest that Zaw Win was also sentenced for trying to smuggle out a draft of Suu Kyi’s book, Freedom from Fear.

Zaw Win was finally sentenced on 6 October 1994 by a civil court at the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon for offences under the Emergency Provisions Act (spreading false news), the Unlawful Associations Act (membership or contact with illegal organisations) and the Official Secrets Act (possession of secret official information). He was also accused of having made arrangements to send ‘fabricated news’ to the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Professor Yozo Yokota. Zaw Win received a fifteen-year sentence and remains detained. The four others arrested for their alleged connection with Zaw Win received sentences ranging from seven to ten years in prison.

While there is so little political movement or progress in Myanmar, it is difficult for human-rights organisations to gain reliable information on political prisoners or keep long-term detainees in the public eye. Prison conditions are harsh and it is frustrating that the penalties suffered by prisoners for contact with the outside world mean that it is virtually impossible to keep in touch with them in order to let them know that they are not forgotten. PEN, the international association of writers, discovered that prisoners were being beaten and moved to cells meant for dogs on receipt of letters of support from abroad.

While held at Insein Prison, Zaw Win was said to be among a group of prisoners who suffered this sort of ill-treatment in 1995, when a letter of protest addressed to the UN was discovered. He is also said to have been refused visits from his family since May 2002 and has reportedly been suffering from health problems, worsened by the conditions of his incarceration. He is now believed to be held in Myitkyina Prison, in Kachin State, north-east Burma, which is very isolated.

Continued pressure on the government may help to bring about change. For example, the international outcry over forced labour and the recruitment of child soldiers resulted in the passage of a law in 2000 banning forced labour (though Human Rights Watch believes that the authorities continue to use forced labour, especially in rural ethnic regions).

Readers may want to send appeals calling for the release of Khin Zaw Win, and all those who remain detained in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association, to the Chairman of the SPDC:

General Than Shwe
c/o Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles Street
Berkeley Square
London W1J 5DX
Fax: 020 7629 4169

‘Burma’s perpetual misfortune is expressed in the wrong turnings that her leaders have precipitated at critical points in recent history. … All those wrong turnings culminated in the fateful summer of 1988, … with the poor and the young paying the heaviest price.’

Khin Zaw Win writing on the 1988 democracy movement.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter