Myanmar is in the process of setting up a documentation centre to reflect on decades of human rights abuses. It’s using the records of Toul Sleng prison as inspiration.
When Chit Min Lay first visited Toul Sleng last month, the cramped cells and blood-splattered walls were eerily familiar. It looked just like “his jail”: the concrete box in Myanmar where he spent 14 years as a political prisoner. He saw the photographs of victims, and turned away.
“I didn’t dare to see their faces, because I lost my friends in prison. I didn’t want to see these horrible things.”
During his month-long stay in Cambodia, which ended on Wednesday, 38-year-old Chit Min Lay returned several times to Toul Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh. In the prison the Khmer Rouge called S-21, about 14,000 men, women and children were tortured and then executed.
He talked with Chum Mey, one of a handful of known S-21 survivors. The 82-year-old is one of two former inmates who came back to the place they were detained to sell memoirs, take pictures and talk to visitors.
Chit Min Lay was transfixed. He wanted to take Mey to Myanmar, he wrote later. The pair spoke for a long time, and took photos together: two former prisoners, separated by a few hundred miles.
Chit Min Lay and fellow Burmese activist Nang Htoi Rawng have spent the past month in the Kingdom working with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), which collects documentation and evidence about the Khmer Rouge regime.
One of the goals of the organisation which sent them is to create a documentation centre to serve Myanmar. There, where many human rights abuses have taken place, record-keeping is still in its infancy.
The ‘Unofficial Truth Project’ is an initiative of the Network for Human Rights Documentation- Burma (ND-Burma), a coalition of 12 other organisations. Their aim is to establish an accurate historical record of abuses which can be drawn upon to lobby for justice, and used as evidence in any future tribunals.
Like so much about Myanmar, there’s politics in the name. According to Han Gyi, a co-ordinator for ND-Burma, the reason for the ‘unofficial’ title is to make clear this is not a government program.
“It’s not the truth that’s unofficial, it’s the project,” he wrote in an email.
Since ND-Burma was formed in 2005, the network, which is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has built up a human rights network within Myanmar. Their work has included developing a website which uses open-source software, into which members can input information.
A low-key liaison office in Yangon was established in November 2012 but they intend to set up a more permanent presence.
A few days after his visit to Toul Sleng, Chit Min Lay sat down in DC-Cam’s office on Sihanouk Boulevard to talk more about the prison and his plans.
“I want to try to have a museum like Toul Sleng, because we face the same problems as Cambodians,” he said.
Human rights activists are still arrested in Myanmar, despite the formation of a nominally civilian government in 2011 to replace the military junta which had ruled since 1962.
There are thought to be more than 100 political prisoners still in prison, although the government has vowed to release them all by the end of 2013.
Two years ago, President Thein Sein, who served as a general and then prime minister under the junta, denied the very existence of such people, who are thought to have numbered some 10,000 since 1962.
Chit Min Lay used to be one of them. In 1998, he was sentenced to 31 years in Mawlamyine prison in Myanmar’s Mon State, after participating in the August student protests when he was in his early twenties. A decade earlier, in August 1988, thousands of others were killed when troops fired on mass demonstrations in Yangon.
A literary man, Chit Min Lay was denied the ability to read or write while in Mawlamyine.
“If they saw a piece of paper, they would punish me.”
Punishments included beatings, starvation and a feared isolation room.
“This room was very bad. You couldn’t go outside, you couldn’t see anything – there was no light in that room.”
When his family came to visit, they wore scarves over their faces so they couldn’t see the faces of his friends. He said that was to avoid them knowing too much information about who the prisoners were, which could be used against them.
Prisoners were frequently taunted with the promise of release.
“I didn’t believe it - they would always tease me as a psychological punishment, but they did release me.”
Nearly 100 people came to meet Chit Min Lay in Yangon upon his release in January 2012, and it was his friends and family who helped him recover from the experience, he said.
Today, Chit Min Lay works for The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Organisation, which promotes civil society, as the deputy in charge of the Education Sector. The organisation, which takes its name from the 1988 uprisings, is part of ND-Burma and the ‘Unofficial Truth Project’.
He wants to document what happened to him and many of his friends who were also arrested, some of whom died in prison from malnutrition and torture, according to the activist.
“I want to show the next generation that we were arrested by the military junta. I want to inform.”
He laughed at the suggestion that he might be afraid. “No, I am never afraid. I think, even if they arrest me, maybe they will release some men.”
Seeing how Cambodia has recorded its past makes him hopeful for the future of his own country, he said.
For Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, who has travelled to Myanmar five times, the partnership between Burma and Cambodia comes naturally.
Why? “Because I am them,” he said, with a grin, speaking in his Phnom Penh office. The floor is covered with the remnants of his classes with the Burmese students: books and A3 paper sheets with phrases like ‘physical documents’, ‘film documents’, and ‘interview documents’ written in blue felt tip.
“I am Cambodian, but I used to be Burmese thirty years ago,” said Chhang, laughing.
“I can see myself in them when they talk – it’s just like how Cambodians talked in the 1980s and 90s.
“There are so many parallels: politics, culture, religion. When it comes to refugees, when it comes to wishlists or ideas for change – they’re so similar.”
The similarities don’t end with Toul Sleng.
In the 1980s, Cambodia was under Vietnamese occupation. As part of the notorious K5 project, between 140,000 and 380,000 Cambodians were forced to clear, secure and mine the densely forested border region. Thousands died from malaria alone while others fell victim to landmine explosions.
Throughout the decade, pro-democracy advocates were subject to a swift crackdown. At the same time, in Myanmar, hundreds of students were arrested.
The similarities date even further back, added Chit Min Lay, referring to the shared colonial history of the two countries.
While Cambodia was colonised by the French, the British claimed Myanmar. Both countries secured independence in the mid 20th Century – Myanmar in 1948 and Cambodia five years later.
Independence was followed in both countries by coups: the onset of the Lon Nol era in Cambodia, and in Myanmar, that of the military junta, which ruled with an iron fist.
Although the country has made significant steps towards democracy since 2011, there is still some way to go, a description that has been used to describe both Cambodia and Myanmar in different circumstances.
While the pre-publication censorship of the domestic press was removed, many publications self-censor, fearing reprisal.
The government has allowed the release of political prisoners but citizens continue to face arrest for unauthorised public protest, and government activity remains opaque.
Many of those military men responsibile for the brutal crushing of the 1988 uprisings retain power in parliament.
So too, in Cambodia, do former Khmer Rouge cadres leaders remain in government.
Chit Min Lay believes the two countries share a painful legacy.
“We have the same stigma,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chhang refers to a psychological “scar”.More than two decades after the Khmer Rouge regime crumbled, Chhang, who was separated from his family aged 13 and forced into slave labour during Pol Pot’s rule, admits he still feels remnants of the old fear.
“When I was a little boy in the city when I was 11, I thought that all the ice-cream men were spies,” he said, referring to the anxious period before the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh.
“Now, today, when I drive and see the beggars at the traffic lights, I think, ‘Oh God, if I don’t give him money, I will be in trouble with the Khmer Rouge’,” he said.
For Chhang, the collaboration with Burmese activists is also an opportunity to put to rights mistakes made in the documentation process within Cambodia.
“I feel very honoured to have this opportunity to fulfill my regret. What I could have done for Cambodia I can do for Burma,” he said, using the original name for the country, before the military junta changed it to Myanmar in 1989.
He outlined three challenges that the country would also face: political decisions, networking and technology.
He believes the time is right for founding a documentation centre, and has written to the US Department of State to ask for support.
“Burma’s civil society has reached a critical stage in terms of development, organisation, and strategic vision.
“Now is the critical time for US engagement and leadership,” he wrote.
The process will be complex. After DC-Cam was established in 1995, Chhang had to persuade the government to co-operate by establishing a reputation for objectivity. ND-Burma, as a group of organisations, continues to focus on human rights advocacy, and will need to avoid undermining the appearance of impartiality.
“Documentation is very political. You need a strategy to do it properly,” said Chhang.
DC-Cam has collected some one million documents from a multitude of sources both within Cambodia and beyond. These range from Khmer Rouge notebooks to telegrams and old photographs.
At this transitional time for Myanmar, security and logistical problems might be great, but access to documents with critical information can be easier, according to Chhang.
The repercussions of recording abuse in Myanmar, however, can still be severe.
“ND-Burma members’ fieldworkers put themselves at great risk to document human rights violations,” said Han Gyi.
Security risks mean monitoring can’t take place openly, especially in certain parts of the country.
The dangers have increased as the government has mounted pressure on local communities, especially in remote areas and conflict zones.
One of those is Kachin State, in the north of the country, and where Nang Htoi Rawng was born.
The coordinator of the Documentation and Research Program at the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), she was also elected to represent KWAT in ND-Burma last year.
One of her responsibilities is fieldwork data verification, which involves documenting human rights violations by the state. These include interviews with victims, and photos of the wounded and injured.
But her most recent assignment was to come to Cambodia with Chit Min Lay to learn the best ways to keep records.
Some of Myanmar’s grossest human rights violations have occurred in her own, native Kachin state, where her family still live. The 28-year-old is now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand but goes back to her hometown once a year to find houses burned to the ground and villagers left desperate.
According to a Human Rights Watch report in March this year, the Burmese government has blocked humanitarian aid to those displaced by fighting in the north of the state since June 2011.
Tens of thousands of civilians and refugees are in dire need of food, shelter and medicine. The atrocities committed by Burmese soldiers against ethnic villagers include pillaging, burning homes, torturing civilians and rape.
“Since 2001, there have been violations happening all over Kachin State. We have been documenting but we need to have a legal system.”
“Cambodia has been through the transitional period, so they have many document systems, so I would like to learn how they have been using those documents and how they have been documenting events.”
While ND-Burma has catalogued more than 5000 separate cases of human rights abuses or crimes in its data system, they have not been independently verified.
Seeing Cambodia brings Nang Htoi Rawng hope, she said, “because we have set up a documentation system.”
“But we need bigger things. DC-Cam has methodology, but for us it’s a bit weak.”
Ultimately, she wants to see a tribunal like the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, but first there must be reconciliation.
“I just want them to be accountable for what they have done for more than 50 years long,” she said.
In Myanmar, ethnic minorities comprise about 40 per cent of the country’s 60 million or so population and have been subject to some of the worst abuse.
On the westernmost side of the country, the Rohingya Muslims who have inhabited Rakhine state for generations have suffered what Human Rights Watch calls genocide.
The government refuses to recognise them as citizens and has tried to have them forced out of the country. In the past two years, some 250 have been killed and 100,000 displaced by violence.
As part of their Cambodia tour, Chit Min Lay and Nang Htoi Rawng visited Muslim communities in Kampot and Sihanoukville.
The trip was especially affecting for Chit Min Lay, whose mother is Muslim, and who has experienced his own share of discrimination.
If a new law, first floated in June, to place restrictions on marriages between Buddhists and other religions goes ahead, women could be prevented from marrying Muslim men.
“Rohingya people have lived for a long time in our country, but they have never been accepted,” said Chit Min Lay.
While Khmers represent the largest ethnicity and Cambodia’s Cham Muslims number in the low hundreds of thousands, the two have coexisted in peace.
“Here [in Cambodia], Muslim people have no problems,” Chit Min Lay said. “At home, they are rejected.”
After two weeks in Cambodia, mid-month, Chit Min Lay was asked by Chhang to file a report on his experience.
He was here in August, a month that has particular resonance for the activist, who calls it ‘black August’.
It was August when he was arrested during the pre-democracy uprisings in 1998. It was August when the protests happened in 1988.
This, in part, is what he reported from Cambodia:
“I miss my country. But August is not black for me here. I see rays of light in the future.”