By Ko Htwe
A political activist who underwent spells of physical and mental illness resulting from severe torture during his decade in jail in Burma has died only 10 days after being freed.
Thet Nwe was among nearly 300 political prisoners released in the 13 January amnesty that drew widespread international praise of the Thein Sein administration and included high-profile dissidents such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira.
His sister, Marlaw Nwe, who was arrested alongside Thet Nwe in December 2002, told DVB today that he had died yesterday afternoon from liver disease. When she saw him at the gates of Insein prison on 13 January, he was lying in a trishaw having been unable to walk the few steps from the prison block to the edge of the compound. His teeth had been knocked out during a heavy bout of torture years before.
“He seemed happy then, even though he was in a lot of pain.”
The 54-year-old had worked as an organiser for the National League for Democracy–Liberated Areas in Thailand before he returned to Burma in 2002. Upon his arrival, he and Marlaw Nwe were arrested and taken to an interrogation centre run by Military Intelligence officials operating under the auspices of former prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who was released from house arrest on the same day as Thet Nwe.
Marlar Nwe said that interrogators held her brother’s head in a toilet filled with faeces and repeatedly hit him over the head. His hands and feet were shackled and only one hand freed from time to time to allow him to eat. The trauma was so severe that twice during his internment he was admitted to Rangoon Psychiatric Hospital.
After the ordeal, judges sentenced him to 38 years in prison under the Emergency Act, Immigration Act and the Unlawful Association Act. His release 10 days ago came after years of pressure from family members and campaigning groups in Thailand.
“He was afraid to die in prison,” said Marlaw Nwe, who was released herself from Insein jail in 2005 and has since remained in Rangoon. Thet Nwe had penned a number of poems whilst detained, including one that earned him an award from Germany, she said.
His funeral will be held tomorrow in Rangoon. “I would like to tell the government to stop tormenting people under false and unfair charges like the way they did my younger brother,” she said.
The amnesty was the most far-reaching enacted by Burma since military rule began in 1962, and has been followed by a flurry of international activity on Burma, including the EU’s announcement today that it would begin lifting sanctions in response to reforms.
The number of political prisoners left in Burma continues to be debated – Amnesty International claims 274 were freed on 13 January, while the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma put the figure at 299. The group estimates that nearly 1,000 people sentenced on politically-motivated charges remain behind bars.