“I was sent to prison before puberty even hit my life,” Htey Win, 62, of Baldwin Park, California, told The Epoch Times. “And it was the most infamous prison in all of Burma.”
In 1974, Win, who was barely 15 years old, was sent to Insein Prison in the city of Yangon, Burma (also called Myanmar), after she was arrested by the Burmese Army for speaking against inefficacies in the government during a strike that she attended.
“One needs democracy, but Burma’s military government is doing things wrongly. America is the right way, even when it comes to women’s rights. In Burma, they don’t know women’s rights like they do here,” she said.
After Win was sent to prison without a trial, an additional 11 months was added to her term because she didn’t sign a military statement that falsely stated that she had committed a crime.
“Why would I sign something that I did not do?” Win said. “The papers were false, and I had no reason to sign them.”
As Win sat for lunch at a corner table at the restaurant Irrawaddy Taste of Burma in Stanton, California, she slowly sipped her tea while beaming a confident smile that paired well with her Burmese patterned dress.
Just behind her hung a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, the former leader of Burma under the National League for Democracy (NLD) party who was arrested on Feb. 1 in a coup by the same military that had imprisoned Win as a teenager.
After Suu Kyi’s party received as much as 80 percent of the vote in the election for the next term of leadership, Burmese military officials, under Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, detained Suu Kyi after accusing the party of election fraud. The military has since declared that the country is under a state of emergency for one year, but the general later said it could be extended to August 2023.
“Every morning while I was in prison, we were roll-called at the signal of the ‘Bonesan’, a form of submission to the prison guards that required the body to be in a crouching position at the point of pain and torture,” Win said. “Winters were cold in there, and we had no coats or blankets, with just a bamboo mat and a floor to lay on, and spoiled food. The smell along with the open toilets was unbearable.”
A Witness to Murder
It was after a long period of torture and abuse while incarcerated at Insein that Win witnessed her first execution from her cell area.
At 5 a.m., a 24-year-old man whom she identified as a close political ally from her native state of Chin—a Burmese state on the country’s Western border that connects to Bangladesh—was shot and killed by the military.
“His mother and father were told by the prison that he would be killed,” Win said. “His father is shocked, mother is shocked. He did not commit wrongdoing.
“I have already suffered a lot because of this regime since I was young. … I can’t sleep when I think about this.”
Later, the military would execute another prisoner near her cell, this time a 78-year-old man, according to Win.
In her reflecting, her smile changed into tears and sobbing.
“Myanmar is currently facing an army killing its own people,” she said. “This army is doing the worst things that you cannot imagine to the people.”
The loss of life that Win witnessed in prison was also experienced by her family, who had held a funeral service for her after not hearing from her in months. After her first four months of imprisonment, her mother and father assumed the worse had happened, given the reputation of the military regime and her regular participation in protesting for democracy.
“My family thought I was dead and had already done memorial services for me,” Win said. “They did not even know I was in jail! My family did not get any information because the military kept it from them.”
A Shot at Freedom
After three years and four months of captivity, Win was released on April 7, 1978. She later resorted to living in a refugee camp, where she was selected for a visa for entry into the United States.
“I share with the Burmese people that if you admire the Americans, you need to put your mind like them,” she said. “You can change your mind first because the government is second there.”
Safe from the military government while living as a Burmese refugee in California, she remains active in informing people about Burma’s unstable political situation, with more than 1 million views on her YouTube page, along with her other social media accounts.
“I always post on Facebook by saying it’s not the military junta’s country because of what they are doing to their own people,” Win said. “What they did to Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the public’s votes with the landslide result for the election led them into not getting any trust from the people they disrespect. They lost their dignity. So, the army cannot rule the country.”
Since February, the use of lethal force by the military junta against peaceful protesters has been condemned internationally by the United States, the UK, members of the EU, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. However, both Russia and China continue to support Burma’s military.
“We are appalled by the alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses in Myanmar. In the last week alone, security forces have killed and burned to death 11 people—among them five minors—and rammed vehicles into protesters exercising their fundamental right to peaceful assembly,” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said during a Dec. 10 press briefing.
“More than 10 months since Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected government in a February coup, the country’s human rights situation is deepening on an unprecedented scale, with serious violations reported daily of the rights to life, liberty, and security of [a] person, the prohibition against torture, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of expression.”
In Win’s native Chin state, it was reported on Dec. 10 that the Burmese military had burned 19 local civilian and religious buildings and 450 residences over a span of 10 incidents. Weeks before in Kayah state, similar incidents occurred with villagers reported to have been burned alive by the army.
“I think the American government and the American people love justice and live in a just way,” Win said. “So as our country is suffering from injustice, I would like to ask for help.
“We need help in any way possible.”