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A rare glimpse inside a barbaric prison

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From the BBC

By Jonathan Head


Phyo Wai Hlaing, a 21-year-old wi-fi technician, had been missing for a week in July 2021 when his father received an anonymous phone call telling him to go to a bridge far from his neighbourhood in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon. 

There the street food vendor was told that his son had been arrested. A few days later he read about it in the state-run newspaper. 

Phyo Wai Hlain was among a group of 29 who were arrested and accused of storing explosives for use in terrorist attacks and for supporting People's Defence Force insurgents who are fighting Myanmar's military government.

Also in that group was Si Thu Aung, a 19-year-old, first-year engineering student. Witnesses told his mother they saw him being taken away by police the day after Phyo Wai Hlaing went missing. 

Both young men had disappeared into Myanmar's gulag, a network of prisons and interrogation centres used for decades to detain and torture dissidents. 

At its heart is Insein prison, a name that has come to symbolise the repression imposed by successive military regimes. That is where Phyo Wai Hlain and Si Thu Aung first went after being sentenced to seven years in prison.

The BBC has been speaking to some of the detainees' families, and to Maung Pho, an artist, who used his six-month incarceration to make detailed drawings of life inside Insein, which he has now been showing at exhibitions in Thailand.

Stamped into the map of northern Yangon like a giant wheel, Insein prison is one of the more sinister legacies of British colonial rule in Myanmar. It was built in 1877 in the form of a panopticon, giving a central guardhouse a clear view to all corners of the "wheel". It is Myanmar's largest prison. Most political prisoners serve at least part of their sentences there, usually the many months in detention before their trials. Some do not survive the experience.

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Yesterday I posted a reply comparing the lack of interest of western countries in what is happening in Myanmar with what happened in Laos back in the 1960s and 70s. At least I thought I posted it. Perhaps i forgot to click 'submit reply' or it was felt not to be relevant. As I do believe the lack of interest is certainly relevant, I post a shorter post again which can be removed if felt to be too off topic. What came to be called "The Secret War" in Laos could easily be a term associated with Myanmar except that the greater communications now avaiable mean that what is happening in Myanmar does filter out in greater detail than was ever the case in Laos.

The conflict in Myanmar is complicated, partly because of its British colonial past and partly because of competing internal groups. The same is true of Laos which had been ruled by a brutal French colonial regime and which was followed by a tripartite arrangement involving three monarchs each allied with different political ideologies. It never worked. With the Cold War in high gear, inevitably the Soviets and the Americans became heavily involved. Only the American participation was never authorised by Congress, and was therefore illegal. To get round this, the CIA and its Air America became America's proxy. And it went about its task with zeal. It made a deal with the Hmong peoples in the north and established a private air strip in their territory. For almost 13 years Long Tieng became the most heavily used airport in the world as a result of all the Air America planes landing and taking off on its bombing and other missions. Yet the world did not know about it and it was marked on no maps. It was part of a secret war even though it had 40,000 Hmong and Americans living there to service and maintain the aircraft. It was undertandably labelled "the most secret place on earth". At the time it was also  the second largest city in the country.

As the short video below points out, American involvement was primarily in an attempt to destroy the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail which crossed into Laos as arms, munitions and forces found their way from North to South Vietnam. Once the Vietnam War, sanctioned by Congress on the basis of what is now agreed a lie, was underway, B52s from the aircraft carriers off Vietnam were frequently unable to find their targets in Vietnam. Unable to land on the carriers carrying their bombs, Laos became known as "bomb alley". Thus this small country had more bombs dropped on it by US aircraft than in the whole of WWII.

Aerial bombing is unlikely to play any part in the conflict in Myanmar. But as long as China feeds arms to its military and other countries are clearly reluctant to become involved, the sufferings of the Myanmar people are surely - and sadly - going to continue for a long time. If Laos was "The Secret War", Myanmar seems fast to be becoming "The Forgotten War".


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