Inside Burma’s Prisons

This is a blog posting from Dina Fine Maron and M. Francesca Monn, writing from Mae Sot, Thailand, a town on the border with Burma. Maron and Monn are interning with PHR for the month, collecting information about medical conditions and human rights abuses inside Burma’s prisons. This research is being completed with the help of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B), a Thailand-based advocacy group consisting of former Burmese political prisoners.  Many AAPP-B employees have generously shared their experiences in prison to supplement our knowledge. 


For political prisoners in Burma, access to healthcare is rare.


Burma’s most famous prison, Insein, is one of the few prisons with its own doctors. Known for its dismal conditions and for using harsh torture methods during interrogations, Insein often holds political prisoners in the months prior to their hearing and for large portions of their sentences. According to AAPP, the prison usually has three doctors for a population of an estimated 9,000-10,000 prisoners.


Other major prisons that hold political detainees, such as Sittwe, Tharawaddy and Thayet, do not have their own doctors. Instead, government-appointed physicians are assigned to visit the prisons on certain days. If inmates become ill during the nights, weekends, and days when doctors are not on the prison grounds, they do not have access to treatment. In a prison system that utilizes torture, and in which malnutrition, close quarters and unsanitary conditions may exacerbate health issues, meeting even the basic health needs of prisoners requires the constant availability of adequately trained medical professionals.


When medical assistance is available, it is often provided by a medic rather than a physician. In many cases, these medics are merely prison guards who have received training in rudimentary medical procedures. Even when patients have access to doctors, the medications they require are rarely available and permission must be granted by military intelligence officials before inmates can be transferred to hospitals. Some political prisoners have reported that they believe seeing a prison doctor is futile since they will not receive the care they need. Others report that it is common for prisoners to be denied transfer to hospitals for life-saving care.


In Burma, most prisoners are allowed to visit with their families twice a month, a practice which gives them access to supplemental food and medications. Food-borne illness and malnutrition are common in Burmese prisons, and medications are generally limited to common painkillers. However, political prisoners are often sent to remote prisons far from their families, forcing them to subsist on what little the prison provides.


Burmese political prisoners have organized to bring about changes in prison conditions, and have attained small victories such as being allowed to wash out their cells once a week. Despite these efforts, conditions for political prisoners overall remain considerably worse than those faced by most criminals. Nonetheless, the Burmese government does not officially recognize that there is any distinction between the types of prisoners, and continues to deny that “political prisoners” exist within its penal system.

Check back for more information about Maron and Monn’s trip and the conditions faced by Burmese prisoners.

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