Burma: English Could Save Your Life

U Myint Aye, a 56-year-old Burmese human-rights activist, had already been jailed for two weeks in Rangoon when incoming prisoners began to describe the abuse of monks in the streets.

The holy men were being tied to lampposts by government soldiers, beaten with rifle butts and bamboo rods, and dumped at their family homes. Aye is now determined to make sure the world hears about these events. But his own story is just as dramatic—for opposite reasons. Aye has spent several stints in the notorious Insein Prison. This fall, however—even as monks were being brutalized around the country—the government let him go after 70 days and a few bamboo swipes to the back.

A stark pattern has emerged from the recent crackdown: certain activists got better treatment than run-of-the-mill protesters and many monks. Turns out the ruling generals are more concerned about world opinion than one might think: activists with close foreign ties or strong English skills got the soft treatment.

These tactics complicate protesters' efforts to promote their cause abroad. Last year the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), based in Mae Sot, Thailand, published a book detailing state torture methods, which it claims have killed 138 activists since 1988. But even though AAPPB leaders, including its office manager, John Glenn (named after the astronaut), have all spent time in Insein Prison, none has ever faced the most extreme tortures, like waterboarding and electric shocks or tiny unlit "punishment cells." One senior Western diplomat says "international notoriety" convinced the generals they "don't help their own interests by mistreating people who are famous."

Aung Kyaw Soe, a 27-year-old human-rights activist (and near-fluent English speaker) is reluctant to discuss his own detention—not because the memories are painful, but because his treatment was so "easy." He was arrested twice before fleeing to Thailand in August. The first time, he was released within hours. The second, he arrived to serve seven days of hard labor, only to be told by guards, "You sit over there. Relax'." He didn't have to ask why. Soe uses U.S. Embassy computers to blog on Burma, and has a direct channel to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "If something goes wrong with me, the [junta] has to pay. A lot," he says.

It's not clear how much the junta has really changed its behavior since its last big crackdown in 1988, when more than 3,000 protesters were killed. Diplomats and activists differ among themselves on this question. Myint Aye says he has been jailed seven times, and his treatment always depended on the level of foreign attention. His "best" incarceration came in 2006, when he and six others were jailed for calling for the release of student leaders who'd been arrested three days prior. ("That time, we got mosquito nets!") Amnesty International and the human-rights group Frontline issued immediate calls for his freedom, and a month and half later he was let go. But all agree that international attention matters. Glenn says publicity can force the junta to improve prison conditions, from better food and blankets to the distribution of chamber-pot covers. Those details can mean survival in a prison like Insein.