In Myanmar bittersweet freedom for a Shan grandfather

October 14, 2013

It has been five months since U Yan Yoe Chon’s family were able to visit him. He grins as he imagines their shock at hearing the political prisoner would return to his home in Namhkam, Shan State, after being freed on October 8.

But even his smile – with gaps where his teeth were knocked out by military interrogators – cannot mask the toll of 10 years and two months in prison.

The 70-year-old former shopkeeper had his first taste of freedom last week after more than a decade behind bars for a crime he still doesn’t fully comprehend.

“At 9am in the morning, 10 military intelligence officers came to my house. I was the only one home and I was watching television when they took me,” U Yan Yoe Chon said last week, recalling the day that would irrevocably change his life.

“They said there had been an explosion and I was responsible,” he said, referring to a minor blast in August 2003 that damaged a home in Namhkam township. “The military intelligence people came to arrest me because the home owner accused me of making the explosion.”

The tall, broad-shouldered father of four, who also has two grandchildren, was taken directly to a military office where he was questioned. Aside from the gaps in his mouth where teeth once stood, U Yan Yoe Chon is deaf in his left ear and has a long keloid scar across his forehead just under his hairline. All are permanent reminders of the torture and beatings he sustained during that preliminary interrogation.

U Yan Yoe Chon gave up the information that his torturers sought only to discover his entire family were then arrested and detained. Three days later, his family were released, but U Yan Yoe Chon soon found himself in front of a military magistrate.

“I appeared for seven days in that court in Muse township, Shan State,” he said. “They charged me with two counts – making threats and plotting. The magistrate said my sentence would be a minimum of five years and a maximum of seven.”

U Yan Yoe Chon then tried to engage a lawyer to act on his behalf – a decision that angered the military intelligence officers who in turn instructed the ethnic Shan’s sentence be increased to 30 years.

He was taken to Lashio prison, close to his village. His family was able to visit regularly and bring food, bedding and medicine.

In 2005 U Yan Yoe Chon was moved to a Mandalay jail. He laughed when asked what the bedding and bathroom facilities were like in Mandalay – there were none. The longer journey meant fewer visits from his family and no medicine at the times when he needed it.

In May, he was relocated again, this time to Insein Prison in Yangon. Here the fare was poor-quality rice, with meat served only two days a week. Just four days later, he was shifted to Taung Son jail.

“This jail is very hard,” U Yan Yoe Chon said. “In this jail, all prisoners worked many difficult and uneasy jobs, but I am very old.”

The laborious work ranged from farming and masonry to laundry. When the Former Political Prisoners group learned of U Yan Yoe Chon’s plight, it petitioned for his relocation to Mawlamyine in Mon State, where prison labour was more lenient.

One of few remaining political prisoners listed as a civilian, U Yan Yoe Chon was released last week.

This story first appeared in The Myanmar Times

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