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Reuters: In the new Myanmar, the gulag endures

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Myo Min, a 36-year-old electrical repairman poses for a photo at the doors of a house in Yangon, on May 25. Min endured brutal abuse while he was imprisoned.

Myanmar’s recent moves toward a more democratic government hold promise that its leaders are serious about ending its days as one of the most repressive backwaters on the planet. But as Reuters reporter Andrew R.C. Marshall found during an examination of the Southeast Asian nation’s treatment of political prisoners, it still has a long way to go

Here are some excerpts from his special report:


Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Lae Lae Win, wife of a veteran democrat and political prisoner Myint Aye, stands in front of pictures of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon on May 25, 2012.

Reformist (Myanmar) President Thein Sein has relaxed media censorship, started peace talks with ethnic rebels, and held by-elections that put democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi into Myanmar's parliament.

Most dramatically, perhaps, more than 650 political prisoners were freed between May 2011 and January 2012, according to Amnesty International. Among those released were celebrated dissidents such as Min Ko Naing and U Gambira, jailed for their role in a 2007 democracy protest led by Buddhist monks.

These reprieves, and the April by-elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won by a landslide, helped convince the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions against Myanmar earlier this year.

But a Reuters examination shows that ... political prisoners continue to suffer incarceration and abuse in an era of uncertain reform. Their stories hold dangerous implications for Myanmar's future.

The military junta that ruled the country for nearly 50 years is gone. But it is survived by a formidable apparatus of oppression: corrupt judges, horrific prison conditions, draconian laws still on the books, and police and soldiers who torture with impunity. Until it is dismantled, democracy activists here say, nobody is safe from arbitrary arrest, torture and wrongful imprisonment.

As Myanmar's long moribund economy opens up, there are signs that repressive system once used to silence political opponents is being retooled for a new era - to sweep away opposition to breakneck economic development. The Thailand-based AAPPB prisoner-monitoring group reports an increase in people being interrogated and jailed for resisting land confiscations and forced evictions, often by the military or businesses with close government connections.

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