Thousands of protesters and monks
missing in secret gulag of the generals
by Kenneth Denby
October 3, 2007
With its rusty barbed wire fence, dense
tropical foliage and acreage of decaying buildings, the former
Government Technology Institute in Rangoon would be a spooky place
at the best of times. In the past week, however, if reports circulating
in Rangoon are correct, it has been transformed from an abandoned
ruin to a place of mass suffering and repression.
According to Western diplomats and at
least one Burmese government official, the technical institute
has become a temporary concentration camp for 1,700 of the victims
of last week's brutal suppression of the democracy uprising. It
provides a partial answer to one of the lingering questions about
the Burmese junta's crackdown: where are the monks, democracy
activists and journalists who have been rounded up and spirited
away over the past six weeks?
Despite the international attention given
to the quashing of the anti-Government marches, the crackdown
remains undocumented. Apart from admitting that 13 people have
died, a figure regarded by most observers as an underestimate,
the authorities have given no details of the numbers of those
arrested and detained.
Most people have vanished without trace,
many of them the Buddhist monks who formed the backbone of the
tens of thousands of people who turned out last week in Rangoon
and Mandalay. "We think that at least 30 have been killed,
about 1,400 people have been arrested," Alexander Downer,
the Australian Foreign Minister said. "This is a brutal regime
and we've seen it at work over the last few days."
One international organisation based in
Rangoon has made a provisional reckoning of 40 dead, based on
reports from hospitals, 1,000 monks arrested and 3,000 secular
detainees. The only thing of which one can be sure is that somewhere
in the country large numbers of people are being held in an invisible
prison camp, without charge, without legal recourse and without
the ability to communicate.
One of them is Win Zaw, 56, a former university
teacher and now a Burmese journalist who works for the Japanese
newspaper, Tokyo Shimbun. At 12.30am on Friday he answered a knock
on his door to six strangers in civilian clothes. Two of them
introduced themselves as representatives of the Home Ministry;
the rest remained silent. They told Mr Win Zaw that they wanted
him to come with them for questioning.
Since then, despite repeated enquiries
to the authorities, his family has heard nothing from him and
they are increasingly anxious about his health. Mr Win Zaw is
a diabetic and his supply of insulin will run out in nine days.
The International Committee of the Red
Cross suspended its visits to prisons at the end of last year
after the junta insisted that its delegates must be accompanied
by government-nominated observers, a condition that the ICRC insists
is unacceptable. In the absence of any concrete information from
the Government, foreign embassies in Rangoon do their best to
sift through the huge number of phone calls made to them by local
Several consistent reports have emerged
from this mountain of information of monks and secular detainees
being held at former educational institutes and sports venues
around Rangoon. The news agency Agence France Presses quoted an
unnamed government official who confirmed what foreign diplomats
have suspected for days - that about 1,700 people have been held
at the Government Technology Institute campus, including 200 women
and one monastic novice, aged 10.
Even on the ground it is difficult to
confirm such stories, but something is going on at the campus.
Armed police and soldiers can be glimpsed through the barbed wire
and trees all along its perimeter fence, and guarding its main
gate. Many buildings are derelict, but one of the biggest - a
blue and green striped warehouse-like structure with a high roof
and no windows - has a concentration of soldiers outside. According
to AFP it is in a building like this that the prisoners are being
detained. Many of the monks have been forcibly deprived of their
monastic robes; some have gone on hunger strike, a continuation
of the policy of refusing alms from members of the regime as a
token of resistance.
The streets of Rangoon continued to be
quiet yesterday as the United Nations special envoy on Burma,
Ibrahim Gambari, flew out after a four-day visit.
The UN has provided no details of the
substance of his trip but he did eventually see the junta leader,
General Than Shwe, and has had a second meeting with the detained
opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.