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 people.

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.

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