Freed US journalist claims Burmese military uses torture to hunt down opposition leaders
By Helen Regan, Anna Coren, Sandi Sidhu and Salai TZ, CNN Business
Myanmar military junta uses torture to extract information from detainees about the whereabouts of senior opposition officials and activists, says an American citizen and journalist who was recently released from a Yangon prison.
Nathan Maung, 44, was detained for more than three months in Myanmar before being deported to the United States on June 15. During this period, he said he endured two weeks in a secret interrogation center run by the military in the country’s largest city, Yangon.
Speaking to CNN Business Wednesday from Washington, DC, Nathan Maung called his time at the facility “hell” and said he prepared to die there, believing the soldiers would kill him.
He is one of more than 6,200 people arrested since the Burmese army, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, seized power in a February 1 coup, according to the human rights association. political prisoners. The army overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and launched on a bloody crackdown on dissent and any perceived opposition to his government. Mass demonstrations in the streets have been suppressed with deadly force.
Former detainees, lawyers and family members of those detained have already told CNN detainees were subjected to torture during interrogation and kept out of contact with loved ones. Some, including members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party, have died in detention, their bodies showing signs of brutal torture.
CNN Business has contacted the Burmese military for comment.
Despite months of escalating violence, the junta said it was exercising restraint against what it called “rioters”, accusing them of attacking police and undermining security and to national stability.
Nathan Maung is the co-founder and editor of Myanmar’s online news site Kamayut Media. He was arrested on March 9 alongside co-founder and newspaper producer Hanthar Nyein, 39, as security forces raided their office.
Although he now lives in the United States, Nathan Maung said he was “not happy” and felt very guilty that he was released because of his American. citizenship, while his friend and colleague Hanthar Nyein, a Myanmar national, remains in the infamous Insein prison.
“We went through hell together. So we should be released together, ”said Nathan Maung, his voice broken with emotion. “I really want him to know that we don’t forget him. He is not alone.
Danny Fenster, another American journalist who was barred from boarding a flight out of Myanmar on May 24, remains in detention, also at Insein prison..
Weeks of “hell”
Nathan Maung knew something was wrong when a convoy of military trucks full of soldiers pulled up outside Kamayut Media’s office in Yangon. Security forces broke through the door and raided the office, seizing equipment and taking Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein with them as they left.
“They sent us to the Mingaladon interrogation center,” he said, in reference to a suburb of Yangon.
There Nathan Maung said they were beaten, deprived of water for two days and food for three days. They were handcuffed and blindfolded almost for two whole weeks they were there, he said.
“They started with a blindfold and handcuffs, then started to interrogate. They kicked us in the face, hands and shoulders all the time. For every answer, they beat us. Whatever we answered – whether correctly or incorrectly – they beat us. For three days, non-stop, ”he said.
Nathan Maung said the facility had five houses and a large office. In buildings, he said, there are there were four interrogation cells. He said his blindfold was removed on his last day there, so he was able to take a look around the room and the buildings.
“In the room there is a CCTV camera, there is no bed, only a small table and a chair for you to sit all day and night,” he said. “You are blindfolded and you don’t have time to sleep. They won’t let you. They put the handcuffs on the front so you can try to sleep like that, but every five minutes they show up and start questioning.
This torture lasted eight days, during which the detainees were moved between homes and cells.
His colleague Hanthar Nyein paid the price for the torture, said Nathan Maung.
“Hanthar was mistreated because he was of Burmese nationality. He must have knelt on the ground for about two days. His skin was burned by a cigarette, ”he said.
Nathan Maung believes soldiers were pressuring Hanthar Nyein to hand them over his phone password, which would give them access to his encrypted communications and phone records with opposition leaders and leading activists plan.
For days, Hanthar Nyein refused to reveal the password, offering them fake numbers in the hope that his phone would automatically prevent anyone from using it. But the last straw came when the guards threatened to rape him.
“Hanthar couldn’t stand this and so he gave back his password and they stopped beating,” Nathan Maung said.
Nathan Maung’s phone broke during the arrest. The beating ceased for him on the fourth day, he said, when soldiers discovered he was a U.S. citizen.
“They stopped beating me and started asking me about why the US government sent me and gave me US funding, if I was working for the CIA – those kind of stupid questions,” he said. he declared. “I said no, I’m a journalist, nobody gave me any money.”
So the line of instead, the questioning focused on his media company Kamayut Media. He said the soldiers asked about budgets and finances. “They are looking for a fundraiser or where we got it,” he said.
Nathan Maung believed he would die in the interrogation cell.
“I thought if we survived for two days at the start we would be alive… but after that nobody knows,” he said. “When they started giving us clean water, I thought, okay, we won’t die, we will live.”
Nathan Maung said he meditated to help overcome mental and physical trauma. “It was the only thing that saved us from hell,” he said.
But his ordeal was not over.
After 15 days, Nathan Maung said he was transferred to a detention center adjacent to Burmese Insein Prison, an overcrowded penitentiary of around 10,000 inmates known for its mistreatment and terrible conditions. For two more weeks he was held in a large cell with around 80 other people – all student activists, protesters and members of the NLD, he said. He was then placed in solitary confinement, where he remained until his release on June 14.
Stop junta violence
The treatment of Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein in detention are not isolated incidents.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch reported that many of the thousands of people arbitrarily detained by the military have been subjected to torture, systematic beatings and other ill-treatment since the coup.
“Myanmar’s military and police often hold detainees for long periods of time in overcrowded and unsanitary interrogation centers and prisons. People detained are often held incommunicado, unable to contact relatives or a lawyer, ”the organization wrote in the report. He added that the victims “described beatings, burns from lit cigarettes, prolonged stressful positions and gender-based violence.”
Manny Maung, HRW researcher in Myanmar and unrelated to Nathan Maung, said in a statement that since the coup, authorities resorted to torture “without fear of reprisal”.
“The sheer brutality of the beatings and abuse shows how the Myanmar military authorities will silence anyone who opposes the coup,” she said.
Nathan Maung said he believed he was arrested because the military viewed him “as an enemy”.
He was one of at least 88 journalists arrested since the army took power in a crackdown on independent media. Many media professionals have been forced into exile abroad or have fled to rebel-controlled areas in the jungle. Those who remain in the cities went into hiding, and swap safe homes every few days to avoid being arrested.
“They tortured me because I believe in democracy, human rights and freedom of expression,” said Nathan Maung.
The military junta has struggled to consolidate its power over the whole country, as it continues to face mass public opposition. Large-scale national protests seen in the months following the takeover were brutally suppressed. In their place, local militias have formed to defend towns and villages against military violence, and fighting between junta forces and armed resistance groups is waged on several fronts across the country.
“The civil war is unfolding now, it is already a failed state,” said Nathan Maung.
Nathan Maung said the international community cannot stand idly by as the junta continues to operate with impunity and without law against its people and called for “aggressive action” against the military.
“We don’t have time to wait and see. There are thousands of refugees who are going to flee towards the border, a humanitarian crisis is occurring now, ”he said.
Standing in a park surrounded by beech trees in Washington, DC – thousands of miles from cells, torture and violence – Nathan Maung feels torn, but says he plans to return to Asia and base himself in the Neighboring Thailand to continue fighting for a democratic Myanmar.
“Sometimes I dream that I really go back to prison, because my body is there but my spirit is with my friends, my journalists, my country,” he said.
“All my life I have worked for a free Burma, as a citizen and as a journalist. Until I die, I have to work for this. I have to take care of my people. They deserve democracy and human rights, ”he said.
– Caitlin Hu contributed to this report.
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