Prisoners’ Contact with the Outside World

Monday the 12th of August, we were very happy to host the launch of the report “Prisoners’ Contact with the Outside World” at the Sedona Hotel in Yangon. The event was attended by a range of stakeholders and following presentations by Andrew M. Jefferson and Ergun Cakal of DIGNITY as well as Kyaw Lin Naing of JFA, there was lively discussion.

Read more about the report and recommendations here.

Rioting for Rule of Law – Prison Amnesties and Riots in Myanmar

Blog post first posted at

Regular readers of the Tea Circle are likely well-aware that more than 23,000 prisoners were recently released on amnesties granted in connection with the celebration of Myanmar New Year in April. In this brief piece we raise some critical questions about the presidential power to pardon.

In Myanmar, New Year amnesties are a common practice and the releases are an annual feature of news reporting. This year the amnesties were accompanied by violence. The amnesties took place in three rounds on April 17th, 26th and May 7th. As the media presented joyful accounts of reunions with family members and expressions of relief at the prospect of freedom, unrest developed in the prisons. The unrest escalated into riots in seven prisons across the country on May 8th. On May 9th,the riot in Shwe Bo Prison came to a fatal conclusion after officials went in with tear gas and guns, killing four prisoners and wounding two.

video streamed live on Facebook via an illegal mobile phone from Shwe Bo Prison on May 8thcaught our attention. It features prisoners wandering around outside their cells cheering and shouting: “We should be released like Moe Aung Yin – our cause, our cause”. In the slogan, their call for clemency was accompanied by the slogan associated with the pro-democracy movement that fought the former military regime and whose representatives from the NLD (National League for Democracy) now govern the country.

Statements from the President’s office declared that the amnesties were given on humanitarian grounds with priority given to women and juveniles as well as elderly, sick, and disabled prisoners. The prisoners were protesting that the amnesties were not given on a systematic basis. They called for a fair and transparent amnesty practice; they called for rule of law.  From their perspective, the selection and release of people such as Moe Aung Yin, a well-known Myanmar actor, and the Reuters journalists seemed arbitrary or at least not to fit the humanitarian criteria laid out. This situation is doubly ironic. Prisoners — those deemed criminal law breakers by the state — call for rule of law and stand up against the arbitrary expression of power and they do so echoing the protest slogans (“Our cause, our cause!”) previously used by the opposition movement as they stood up against the military regime.

After the riots, opposition parties raised a critique similar to the grievances expressed by the prisoners in a joint press conference by the National Unity Party, the National Political Alliance League and the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) on June 5th. While echoing the prisoners’ critique of the arbitrariness of the amnesties, the opposition parties claimed that the lack of thorough investigation of which prisoners to release would lead to dangerous criminals bring released. As a reply, a spokesperson from the President’s Office informed them that the amnesty was aimed at minor drug cases and considered appeals submitted to the President and the State Counselor. While this explains how famous cases of actors and journalists got included in what was presented as an amnesty on humanitarian grounds, it confirms the lack of transparency that makes the selection of prisoners included in the amnesties appear arbitrary.

Our research in Myanmar is about legacies of detention. We are especially interested in the way prison is experienced and the politics of imprisonment. The amnesties and the prisoners’ response to them speak to these themes in interesting ways. Our research so far has made us aware that prisoners serving long sentences in Myanmar historically came to look to amnesties as a potential route to release. Over the years, many prisoners have been released via the presidential pardon rather than on their court-mandated release date. But amnesties create uncertainty. They are at the discretion of the President’s Office and the prisoner never knows whether he or she will be on the list. So, while the joyous reunions at the prison gate may make amnesties appear as overwhelmingly positive, they are more ambivalent in their broader effects when seen from the perspective of prisoners either anticipating amnesty or left behind.

We can also raise critical questions about the power to pardon and the practice of amnesties from the perspective of rule of law. In effect, amnesties are at odds with the logic meant to govern release of prisoners in a criminal justice system based on rule of law: they are arbitrary rather than systematic, discretionary rather than mandatory. Amnesties can be seen as a demonstration of executive power trumping judicial power and may have an undermining effect on the long-term efforts to transform the judicial system and bring it into line with international norms and standards for justice delivery. This is ironic given the emphasis the current administration has otherwise given to the rule of law.

Presidential pardons of this kind are perfectly legal, and relatively commonplace across the world; they serve as a gesture that emphasises executive power and reminds the judiciary that in certain situations it is subject to, rather than independent of, the executive. Complicating the situation in Myanmar is the uneasy balance of power between the NLD and the military that has the military controlling important government ministries, including those responsible for justice and prisons. It may even be the case that some aspects of the recent amnesties (for example the release of the Reuters journalists) can be seen as a kind of victory for the NLD as they were able to legitimately usurp authority from the military-controlled ministry formally responsible for the administration of sentencing and release.

Critical questions can also be raised about whether amnesties are a good solution to overcrowding, a common criticism of Myanmar’s prisons. While amnesties of this size do contribute to decreasing the population of Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons, they do not solve the systemic issue of over-population. Relatively large numbers of prisoners have been granted amnesties for years, but the population keeps increasing. Alternative strategies for decarceration are needed. One promising initiative in this direction is the decriminalization of drug use through ongoing reform of drug laws. In this vein, most of the amnesties have been granted to prisoners with drug-related cases— a fact which also reflects that the majority of prisoners in Myanmar are imprisoned on such cases.

From a human rights perspective, one can ask whether pardoning is a practice that should be encouraged or frowned upon. On the one hand, the small contribution towards decarceration might ease the pains of imprisonment for those released as well as those left behind. On the other hand, it undermines the justice system’s internal logic and adds to the uncertainty felt by prisoners. We might also ask whether, if someone can be released on humanitarian grounds in celebration of a holiday, there are really grounds for keeping him or her confined in the first place. In our view, rather than relying on amnesties, Myanmar politicians should look to ways of reducing the use of imprisonment through diversion, fair and proportionate sentencing practices, the decriminalisation of petty offences, and the use of alternatives to imprisonment.

Liv S. Gaborit is a PhD fellow at Roskilde University and DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, currently she is a Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University. Her research focuses on experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar.

Andrew M. Jefferson is a prison scholar based at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture. He specialises in ethnographic studies of prisons and prison reform processes in the global south focused especially on issues related to survival, governance and transition. 

Disseminating Knowledge: Brief report on simultaneous events in Canberra and Copenhagen

The 15th March 2019 was quite a day for the Legacies of Detention project. Simultaneously across two hemispheres key events were taking place that demonstrate some of the achievements of the project so far. In Copenhagen PhD fellow Liv Gaborit together with former political prisoner Leytar Tun launched an exhibition of photographs taken by a group of former prisoners (Letyar Tun, Sai Minn Thein, Pho Nyi Htwe and Phyoe Dhana Chit Lynn Htike) in Yangon reflecting the contemporary struggles they and their families face. The photos, which have also been displayed in Myanmar, are the product of an action research component of Liv’s doctoral research that focuses on experiences of imprisonment with a focus on recognition. From Liv’s perspective and that of the Legacies team in Denmark, the exhibition itself serves as a gesture of recognition of the hardships and sufferings of the many people who participated (and still do) in the struggle towards democracy and justice in Myanmar. It is also a sign of what is possible today by way of co-production of knowledge given the right combination of tenacity, courage and willingness to become ethnographically embedded that is necessary to build the right kind of relationships to follow through on such an endeavour.

On the same day over 16000 km away our local project partners, Justice for All Law Firm, presented at one of the most prestigious academic conferences on Myanmar, the Myanmar Update conference held at the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre. On behalf of the research team (U Than Htaik, Kyaw Lin Naing, Nwe Ni Aung and Aung Lin Oo), Kyaw Lin Naing presented the results of a qualitative case study conducted on the topic of Prisoners’ Contact With the Outside World. The presentation featured a description of the case study methodology, the significance of the topic and a synthesis of the findings. In brief the case study confirms the way in which contact with the outside world is important to prisoners to sustain them physically and emotionally and documents the variety of forms such contact takes across different types of detention facility. The study also illuminates the great lengths family members go to, to ensure contact and the hindrances they have often faced. The conference was a fantastic opportunity to disseminate this recently generated knowledge. This was the team’s first experience of participating in such a conference and the first opportunity to expose an audience of scholars from and beyond Myanmar to the research methods applied and the findings. In addition, Principal Investigator Andrew M. Jefferson presented at the conference based on data collected from a series of interviews with ex-prisoners now occupying positions of political authority. Jefferson argued that the various disruptions that feature in the lives of the former political prisoners should be understood as links in life trajectories rather than breaks, an argument that might reasonably be extended to the way we think of the ongoing sociopolitical transition in Myanmar.

So, from the project’s point of view there is cause for celebration and we hope the reader might identify with our sense of achievement. And yet at the same time as we cautiously register some achievements we are conscious of the bigger socio-political picture that frames the two events we report on here: Myanmar is still in flux; freedom of speech is still limited; gross human rights violations continue; the peace process has stalled; political authority is highly centralized; substantial political power remains in the hands of the military; dreams of a unified federal state are not shared by all and seem out of reach; and while the positively-oriented recalibration of the relationship between state and citizen one might associate with a shift towards a consolidating democracy can be sensed in certain quarters there remains a long way to go before the anticipated fruits of the changing political dispensation are available and accessible to all.

The photo exhibition will be exhibited at Kulturhuset Indre By at least until June 1. Click here to read more about the exhibition in an article written by Globalnyt (in Danish).

From the Field: Vipassana – Looking Inwards to Understand Experiences of Imprisonment in Myanmar

By: Liv Stoltze Gaborit
Published first at the blog: Bordercriminologies, Oxford University

Since October of 2016 I have been living in Myanmar doing fieldwork for my PhD on experiences of imprisonment. This particular fieldwork experience is different for me, as it is the first time I am doing prison research without access to the prisons themselves. Developments in the country over the past few years have opened a political space in which prison research is possible, though access to penal institutions is still difficult to attain. We expect that our long term engagement in Myanmar via our project Legacies of Detention in Myanmar, will open these sites to researchers in the future. For now, however, I am working from the outside with several organized groups of former political prisoners (e.g., Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and Former Political Prisoners Society) and other NGOs that engage with former prisoners.

One of the organisations engaging directly with the prisons is a local meditation centre in Yangon practising the tradition of Vipassana. This centre coordinates 10-day Vipassana retreats for prisoners inside the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon. Several of the former prisoners I have talked to have participated in these retreats and still come to the meditation centre, following their release. I engaged with the centre and talked to some of the teachers to get to know more about their work with prisoners. Although the teachers willingly told me about their courses, they emphasised that the only way to understand Vipassana was through first-hand experience. After some consideration, I decided to join a retreat at the meditation centre myself.

Evening prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda (Photo: Liv Gaborit)

Personally, I have some experience with meditation and have been on two similar retreats before, though none as restrictive as this one. However, considering my past experiences, I felt relatively comfortable that I would be able to stick to this stricter regime, which demanded rising at 4am, meditating for more than 10 hours a day, and staying in silence for 9 of the 10 days. My main frustration as a researcher, was that the regime did not allow writing, so I was unable to record field notes in situ.

For the first couple of days, my thoughts focused on how the experience was useful for my work. I considered the differences and similarities of my voluntary confinement within the compound of the meditation centre to the confinement experienced by prisoners. I thought about how this situation – which for me was full of deprivations – from talking, writing, eating meat and moving outside the compound – might be an experience of increased privileges for many prisoners –  better food, more space, and freedom from working and attending to other people’s needs.

The first three days we did Samadhi meditations to prepare our concentration for what would come next. As expected, my mind wandered. During the first couple of days, as my thoughts wandered, I mentally drafted this blogpost and began to reflect on the interviews I had already conducted with former political prisoners. During the subsequent couple of days, I forgot this mental draft altogether as I couldn’t write it down. Slowly, thoughts about work subsided and I could focus on my experience in that particular moment. As I did, my role as tool for the research changed. Before, when I approached the field as a curious newcomer, I would use myself as a tool by being conscious of body language, adapting to local customs, when sometimes sharing carefully selected personal experiences or knowledge from previous work and when I recorded down my emotional reactions in fieldnotes. I did all these things to encourage trust building and enhance my understanding of the people I talked to. Now, I was not only a tool for the research by performing the role of the ethnographer, I was looking inwards to experience – on my own mind and body – what prisoners go through when they attend the Vipassana retreat inside prison. My position changed, from being a curious newcomer before the retreat, to a full participant during the retreat, and finally, after the retreat, to a newcomer with an improved understanding of the field in which I was engaged. And so, the emphasis as participant and observer dynamically fluctuated as I did participant observation.

The main technique used in this kind of Vipassana utilizes continuous and repeated bodyscans. As I scanned through my body, tensions, memories, and feelings came to mind. One by one I lived through them and let them go. I spent seven of the ten days struggling with a psychosomatic pain in my left shoulder. Every time I sat down for meditation, the pain arose, every time the bell rang, it evaporated. Finally, when the teacher asked if I was facing any challenges, I managed to say I was struggling with pain in my shoulder. As the sentence left my lips, I began to cry. The teacher told me to keep trying and I would succeed – which was her answer to most questions – and otherwise she did not dwell on this pain. It felt strange to me, not to engage in a conversation about it and to only receive this somewhat distant support. I would have to face the pain myself. I was unable to stop the tears from falling, so as I sat down for meditation again I was still crying. I sat there curled up with my arms around my knees crying silently for around an hour before the feelings of sadness subsided, and I was able to start meditating again. When I did, the tension in my shoulder disappeared together with the pain.

I have experienced strong emotions in connection with fieldwork before, but they have always been a reaction to the encounter with the field. This was the first time fieldwork caused such strong emotions to arise based on introspection alone. These feelings were not connected to encounters in the field, the tragic situation of some of the people I had talked to, or the traumatic experiences they had gone through. These emotions were result of my own personal experiences long before I went on fieldwork. Through systematic introspection, I had brought my inner self into my fieldwork to a much larger extent than ever before.

Shwedagon Pagoda seen from Kandawgyi – a strong reminder of the role of Buddhism in Burmese culture, visible from most places in Yangon (Photo: Liv Gaborit)

How is this personal experience of vulnerability relevant for my research? My inner world is not the place to look for truths about experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar. By doing this retreat however, I reached a new level of understanding of what former prisoners had already told me. I began to see more nuances in what I had read and heard about meditation in the prisons here. Rather than finding answers, I left the retreat with my mind full of new and more qualified questions about the experiences of imprisonment. New questions were raised about how some find comfort and strength in the solitude of solitary confinement while others feel the strain of it. Questions about the role of Buddhism for experiences of imprisonment; about experiences of the self and others; about perceptions of other prisoners and prison guards; the list goes on.

I had tried to reach an understanding of the role of meditation in prisons by talking with former prisoners about how they practiced it and how it helped them. I had talked to teachers and read research and the philosophy behind Vipassana meditation taught inside the prisons. But my level of understanding reached a new depth as I engaged myself in the same experience. While everyone goes through unique experiences in Vipassana, as well as in prison, having lived through the retreat I was offered a new and invaluable vantage point from which to understand the experiences that prisoners may have gone through.

Speaking with ex-detainees in Myanmar

PhD-student Liv Stoltze Gaborit writes from Myanmar, where she is currently researching experiences of imprisonment through interviews with ex-detainees.

By Liv Stoltze Gaborit.
Photo: Liv Stoltze Gaborit, all rights reserved.

When I first moved to Yangon this October I started a three weeks’ intensive language course. Before noon I went to language class, after noon I met with stakeholders in the project, by evening I passed out, my head feeling like it was going to explode from all the new things I had to learn.

I finished the language class and the day after I passed the exam I flew to Kachin in northern Myanmar, where ethnic armed groups are still present and in conflict with the Burmese army. Up there it was not well seen that I tried to use my Burmese, since some saw it as the language of the state they are fighting, so I was back to struggling to learn to say hello and thank you in yet another language and otherwise getting by with interpreter and English.

I am now back in Yangon, trying with a private tutor to fully grasp the Burmese language. New tutor means a new way to spell most words, since the real spelling is in their own alphabet and there is no standardized Romanization. Language is a struggle, but I see progress and hope that after this course I will be able to have actual conversations and follow at least part of the answers in my interviews.

The resilience of detainees
It is fascinating to hear about the different ways that people survive inside prisons, and see the variety of feelings in our conversations about prisons. One moment we can be talking about the humiliation of living in a cell with no toilet where you would be sleeping in your own excrement, humiliated and plagued by skin diseases and maggots, the next their face light up as they tell me how they were still able to resist this system in some small way.

One former prisoner told me how he and his cell mates built an oven out of metal plates and burned plastic from their trash to light it. The smoke of burned plastic didn’t alarm the guards either (my guess is I have to prepare myself for some pretty smelly prisons if I gain access to the prisons). When they were done using the oven they had to dig a hole in the cell floor and hide it – they were happy they had a cell with plain dirt floor, not cement like some of the other cells.

Another striking moment was less happy. During an interview, the woman I was talking with began to tear up. The interview was conducted through interpreter, and until then she had faced him when she spoke and me when she listened to me or him. All of a sudden she turned her face at me and said the simple sentence “I remember” and then she began to cry. She was still feeling guilty because her friend had been imprisoned based on some of the evidence the police found when they searched her room. After the friend was imprisoned they shared a cell, and every time she saw her friend struggling or heard of her friends’ family struggling to get by outside, she felt it was her fault.

Death penalty at the age of 16
One of the men I talked to had been sentenced to death for high treason when he was only 16 years old because he was part of the student groups against the military regime back in ‘88. After one year and nine months his sentence was changed to 20 years of imprisonment, because it was illegal to give the death penalty to someone so young. He was released after 18 years – so at release he had spent more than half of his life in prison. Still, he had managed to get married and find a good job and accomplish a lot in his career and in his continued political effort. He told me that he was one of the lucky ones – because he had now reached a stage where he could try to be happy, most people in similar situations couldn’t.

These are the personal experiences that make up the history of Myanmar. I am truly thankful to the people who share such painful stories with me and join me in the effort to get a deeper understanding of what has happened and is happening in Myanmar prisons.