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Surviving seven terrifying nights

By Alan Brown, The Telegraph (UK), October 13, 2007

Yangon, Myanmar -- To the 18-year-old novice monk, the makeshift jail seemed like a deliberate mockery of life in the Buddhist monastery from which he had been dragged.

<< File Pic: A monk injured during attacks by soldiers (Sept 26, 2007)

Sitting in rows from one end of the room to the other were hundreds of hushed, cross-legged figures, their heads bowed and their eyes shut tight.

The smell, though, was not of incense but unwashed bodies and soiled clothes, and the sounds that broke the hush were of pain rather than of prayer.

This was the scene last week inside the Government Technology Institute in Yangon, one of four buildings used as holding centres for the thousands of monks, democracy activists and ordinary civilians arrested during Myanmars's vanquished pro-democracy uprisings.

Built by the British during colonial rule in 1905, its crumbling, redbrick schoolrooms have lain empty for years. Now, however, the country's military junta has re-opened them to teach the nation a lesson they intend them never to forget: defy us at your peril.

Such is the climate of fear on the streets of Yangon that few details have emerged of what has gone on inside the holding centres, whose existence has not been officially confirmed by the government.

However, via a trusted intermediary, The Sunday Telegraph was able to obtain the first-hand account of a novice monk who was released from the technology institute camp last week.

Showing vicious bruises on his face and arms from soldiers' truncheons, he told how he spent seven terrifying nights there after being arrested, along with 100 other monks, at Yangon's Mingalar Rama monastery early on the morning of September 27.

"Day and night, we had to sit in crowded rows with our heads bowed down. If we spoke, looked up or fell asleep, we would be hit,'' the monk, who asked not to be named, said.

"We weren't allowed to move at all, not even to go to the lavatory - we had to just do it where we were sitting. Once in the morning, and once in the afternoon, the guards would come and give us water, but it would be only one or two bottles for 50 people or more.''

Injuries

Some of the prisoners, he said, had severe wounds sustained during arrest, with cuts and gashes on arms and legs that had gone right through to the bone. Yet despite the filthy, insanitary conditions in which they were being held, no medical treatment was offered whatsoever.

During his time in custody, he claimed, he saw numerous fellow inmates pass out as they sat in the holding area. Three, he believes, died from their injuries.

Every now and then, prisoners would be taken off in groups of 10 for interrogations in neighbouring rooms, where they would sit on the floor opposite rows of plain-clothes intelligence officers who sat behind a long trestle table. Each prisoner would then go through remorseless questioning aimed at identifying ringleaders.

Many of his fellow inmates, the monk said, were innocent bystanders who had been arrested by mistake, but after interrogation, their testimony was checked with local intelligence officials in their neighbourhoods.

If they corroborated their claims, they would be freed: if not, they would remain for further questioning.

At one point, a group of abbots from a monastery thought to be sympathetic to the military regime were brought in to ask the monks to swap their filthy robes for civilian clothes.

The request, however, was interpreted as a symbolic "defrocking'' designed to humiliate them. It prompted an outburst from the prisoners that led some of their soldier guards to show remorse.

"Some of the monks said to the soldiers, you are committing a religious crime by trying to remove our robes from us, how can you do this? They said, 'We are sorry, we know we are committing a religious crime, but we have no choice'.''

After being released last week, the 18-year-old novice was given a travel order telling him to return to his home village outside Yangon rather than go back to his monastery in the city. Exactly how many others are still in custody remains unclear.

Scepticism

The Myanmarese authorities admit to having detained nearly 3,000, and claim that all but 109 have been released, but human rights groups and Burmese journalists in Yangon view such claims with scepticism.

"In Yangon alone, we think that up to 25 monasteries were raided last week, and those are just the ones we know about,'' said one local newspaper editor, whose reporters have been monitoring the situation.

"We think there could be anything up to 9,000 in jail right now, and the government is still looking for people.''

As one of the conditions for his release, the novice monk was made to sign a paper agreeing not to tell anybody about what had happened to him. He decided to speak out nonetheless.

Yet, despite his ordeal, he emphasised he felt sorry for his captors, as well as for his fellow captives.

"Because I am a monk, I simply mean love and kindness towards these people,'' he said. "I pity them and I pray for them.''



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