During a half-century of dictatorship, nearly 10,000 Burmese citizens were imprisoned for their political views. Almost all of these political prisoners suffered physical and psychological torture. Some were locked up for almost 30 years. The inhumane living conditions they were subjected to have made their return to normal life a challenge. Our reporter went to meet them.
In November 2015, Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a parliamentary majority in the country’s first free elections since 1990. It was a historic victory which mirrored that of the thousands of dissidents opposed to the junta. Since a change of regime in 2011, these political prisoners have begun to be released en masse. After initially being isolated and excluded from society, with no one to help them, things are beginning to change.
As a first step, a handful of activists founded a clandestine association in neighbouring Thailand, the AAPP (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners). In 2010, it began a psychological support programme for persecuted dissidents who have fled Burma. Two years later, the association was allowed to set up in Rangoon, Burma's economic hub. It now employs 20 "psychological counsellors" who are themselves former detainees. An American university, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has now perfected this programme, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Although the fate of former political prisoners has improved, the legacy of the military junta lives on. As of August, the AAPP and the French NGO Info Birmanie still counted more than 100 political prisoners in Burma.
We filmed our report just after the NLD’s election victory and in a particular context: the Burmese were already looking towards the future. The junta seemed almost absent, letting the press work with less supervision than usual. We were able to freely meet several former political prisoners. They told us about their traumas, as well as their difficulties in reintegrating into a Burmese society undergoing profound change.