Giving a face to the forgotten

Giving a face to the forgotten

Myanmar artist Maung Phoe provides a glimpse of life inside the notorious Insein Prison through art

Giving a face to the forgotten

Inside, everything seems to be in order. Time goes according to schedule. You eat, work, play and sleep. Nothing strays from the course. There is no disorder, or if there is, it is kept under control. Here, you go by the book, not at anybody's whim. But you are not alone. There are thousands around you who stick together through thick and thin. What more could you ask for? While basic needs are met, you are not allowed to go outside until completion of your term.

That is what life behind bars is like.

Born in Myanmar's Mandalay, Maung Phoe is an artist who illustrated for magazines and taught painting to children, but took a decade-long break to take care of his wife and son. Due to the military coup in early 2021 he rekindled his passion, but a turning point soon came on April 7, when officers raided his house and abused him. The family was arrested for possessing material relating to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

"I stayed in Insein Prison for six months, where I drew all these pictures. In prison, time is very long. I got the idea to use my talent to pass the time. Actually, bringing a pencil, pen, or paper isn't allowed, but I sneaked them in. In prison, everybody is facing a moment of difficulty. Most people can't keep their mind where the physical body is. I found that my talent gave me the opportunity to meditate," he said.

Built by the British in the late 19th century, Insein Prison is the country's largest panopticon jail for political dissidents. Since the military coup, the colonial-era facility has received thousands of prisoners. In detention, Maung Phoe drew around 200 portraits and gave them to fellow inmates. He managed to smuggle diary fragments and around 70 pictures out of the notorious jail. Now, they are on view at SEA Junction until the end of this month.

(Photo: Thana Boonlert)

His blue-ink sketches not only highlight the infringement of human rights but also give voice to inmates. Maung Phoe observed how they live in the overcrowded prison. For example, Han Soe, an HIV patient, falls ill and sleeps in the foetal position. So does Kyi Pauk, who suffers from a gunshot wound. Some inmates, like U Mya Thaung, died of Covid-19 due to the lack of healthcare.

When it comes to their routine activities, prisoners take a bath and clean septic tanks together. They tear fabric from old longyi and twist it to create a drying rack, but have to hide it from an inspector who conducts a random check once a week. In their free time, they take a nap, play chess or watch videos, but only a few read books. They also take part in sports like futsal, kickball and table tennis.

Prisoners cleverly bend rules to navigate their terrible life in the camp. On the day of cleaning septic tanks, those who want to avoid it can hire someone to work for them and pay them with rolls of betel nut or sachets of coffee mix. Maung Phoe asked young inmates to patrol while hiding in a room, drawing these sketches. When the head of the ward was away, he trimmed his moustache in the bathroom of his office.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), over 20,000 people have been arrested since Myanmar's military staged its coup. Of these, over 17,700 are under detention in 56 penitentiaries, but the largest number is in Insein Prison.

Other victims share their experiences to heal trauma. Currently based in Bangkok, A Phyu, a lay counsellor and human rights activist, provides psychological support to survivors. In September 2021, security forces raided a hospital. She and others were put in an interrogation centre for three months. Detainees were tortured, starved and denied permission to use the toilet. Worse, women faced sexual harassment. Officers also resorted to mental torture by forcing them to look at the Sun and hitting them when they avoid it.

"There are people who were tortured worse than me. Aside from physical torture, we had other trauma. I feel sad when I see the Sun and the clouds. I feel angry when I see people happy. I don't want to sleep on the mattress anymore. I want to sleep on the floor only. I don't want to use dishes any more. I want to use banana leaves or steel plates. When I see good food, I want to cry. I still have nightmares about the detention centre," A Phyu said.

Blue-ink drawings of Insein Prison by Maung Phoe. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

Survivors who managed to relocate to a new country need community support. After Thet Swe Win, the founder of Synergy, a non-profit organisation in Myanmar, fled his homeland in April 2021, he settled in Mae Sot and began to help the diaspora. He opened a tea shop and provided space for his compatriots. As of now, there are around 20,000 refugees in the town. Most of them are in a difficult situation. Thet Swe Win found that the town does not offer jobs that match people's backgrounds. For example his friend, a surgeon, is now a delivery driver.

"We should have done more for our friends," said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, which monitors and documents torture cases in Thailand.

Of these, around 500 Muslims have been arrested by the Thai military. Under martial law in Thailand's Deep South, anybody who is suspected of insurgency can be detained for a week without assistance. Pornpen's organisation has helped victims of torture and their families through art and therapy. Meanwhile, it has successfully pushed for Thailand's new anti-torture bill.

"We have put forth a number of principles in domestic law, including absolute prohibition of torture and enforced disappearance, some safeguards from arrest and detention within custody, including non-refoulement, and provision of universal jurisdiction," Pornpen said. "But it needs a lot of work and effort from victims and friends here. Speaking out is not easy, but to be able to speak is for you and for us."

Namar Altamirano, a Franco-Nicaraguan sociologist, shared similar experiences of political prisoners in Myanmar and Latin America. She urged that their testimonies be used for prosecution to achieve transitional justice. Meanwhile, technical and financial support for civil society organisations is needed to collect data and raise public awareness of the situation.

"It may be used sooner. We don't need to wait 30-40 years for victims to have access to justice," she said.

"Portrait of Detention: Drawings Of Insein Prison By Maung Phoe" is running at SEA Junction at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre until May 31.

Maung Phoe's work shows the structure of Insein Prison. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

Maung Phoe joins a discussion panel via video, and from left, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, A Phyu, Thet Swe Win and Namar Altamirano. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

(Photo: Thana Boonlert)

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