Burma's 'new life' camps evoke memories of Pol Pot

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The Independent Online

Burma is a "land of prisons" with thousands of human rights activists being sent off to brutal "new life" camps after being arrested during night raids and convicted in secret trials, a senior British diplomatic source has said.

Monks who led the pro-democracy campaign are among the disappeared. Some are believed to have been beaten close to death in custody, while the fate of many others remain unknown. Roads to the monasteries have been cut and very few monks are now seen in public.

The account of retribution which has followed last month's violence came from the official who is closely acquainted with the unfolding situation in Burma. The "new life" camps, echoes of "re-education centres" set up by Pol Pot in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, are away from the capital, Rangoon, and surrounded by tales of savage punishment, he said.

Those considered by the regime to be leaders of the protest are believed to have received sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment.

And tales have begun to emerge of mistreatment in the jails and "new life" camps, with the monks in particular being targeted for severe abuse. They are being held in rooms where there are no toilets and where the walls are covered in excrement. They have been routinely beaten and soaked in ice cold water, with the interrogators often stripping robes from the clerics because this supposedly expiates them of any sins over what they had done.

The diplomat said yesterday that the regime is trying to portray a scene of normality, but "very serious abuses" are going on behind the scenes. "There are huge night-time sweeps. They have scooped up hundreds of people. There is heavy security in the parts of town where many of the dissidents come from. A hundred activists have been tried this week in closed courts in Mandalay, while another thousand have been brought before special courts in Rangoon."

Figures released by the regime regarding the number of dead and incarcerated cannot be believed, the official said. According to official numbers, of the 3,000 people arrested during the protests only 500 remain in custody, but the real total of those in detention was likely to be up to 2,500. The official death toll is 10; the real figure, was "many, many multiples" of that, the diplomat added.

Living conditions for the population continue to be dire in a part of Asia which is going through an economic boom. Fifty per cent of children do not have access to primary school education, while 30 per cent live below the poverty line. Communication with the outside world has been curtailed by closing down of internet services and sheer practical difficulties in a country where a mobile phone costs $2,000 (£975).

While British officials do not believe there is any immediate prospect of a repeat of last month's mass protests, the diplomat said signs of unrest have continued. There have been reports of rocks and bricks being thrown at police, while in Rangoon there has been booing at what was supposed to be a pro-government rally, even though the crowd had been surrounded by armed police.

There was deep outrage, said the diplomat, at the way the monks had been treated, which even extended to parts of the army and the government.

"The population is traumatised and for the moment, they are licking their wounds, but they are determined to carry on showing their resistance," the official said.

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