FEATURE: Sunderland human rights campaigner visits Burma

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FIVE thousand miles from home, little did Peter Mulligan expect to find a slice of Sunderland.

However, in the office of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) in Mae Sot, Thailand, the East Boldon dad-of-one found Echo articles pinned to the walls, a sign of how a distant struggle has sparked international sympathy.

The articles are the result of Peter’s work to campaign for the rights of those imprisoned for speaking out against the military junta which has ruled Burma with an iron fist.

As well as teaching Sunderland College students about the issues, the 54-year-old inspires them to raise awareness in the city and beyond.

His latest visit to the stricken part of south east Asia was as part of a trade union delegation from the UK with representatives from the University and College Union (UCU), Unison, teaching union NASUWT and Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

Peter said: “I was amazed to see a wall decorated with Echo news pieces and photos on Burmese political prisoner projects we’d run at the college over the past few years.

“Khin Cho Myint talked me through other displays which had come from all around the world to express solidarity with political prisoners still held in Burmese jails.”

The AAPP provides food, medicines and travel costs to keep prisoners and their families in contact. It also tries to protect prisoners from harassment when they’re released while raising awareness of the horrors they’ve faced.

Peter’s guide Khin Cho Myint knew all too well what it’s like to be behind bars for having beliefs.

She served five years and nine months in jail for her support of the Students’ Union in Burma. In a totalitarian state, this was deemed to be a crime.

Speaking to Peter, she said: “Despite the much-publicised releases of prisoners in late 2011 and earlier this year, there are still more than 900 political prisoners still held in Burmese jails.

“For a political prisoner everything depends upon family support, but often they are deliberately located in prisons many miles away from their home town.

“They are dependent on their families for nutritious food, medicine and morale-boosting visits. Often there is no prison doctor available so they have to get by with the attention of an unqualified medic.”

Before 2007, political prisoners were often held in solitary confinement and not allowed to hire a defence lawyer.

In 2008 some defence lawyers were given a six-month sentence for legally representing a political prisoner. They were charged with contempt of court – this still happens now.

Sometimes political prisoners are forced to wear 6kg leg irons which have an iron bar between the manacles.

Khin also told Peter how prisoners are allowed to shower just once a month and that talking in the prison is not allowed.

In some cases she has heard of prisoners forced to shout out “I am not a human. I am just a prisoner” while they are being punished.

Despite the hundreds kept in these degrading conditions, the Burmese government does not even recognise the notion of a “political prisoner”. Peter said: “The brutality of the Military Intelligence interrogators and the hardships of the prison system is hard for us to imagine.

“Torture is commonplace and many political prisoners spend long stretches of time in solitary confinement.”

Peter met one ex-political prisoner, Thiha Yarzar, who has written an account of his time in prison and death row. He served 18 years of hard time in Burmese jails, six of these years were in solitary confinement.

“It’s incredible that Thiha has survived at all given the torture, brutality and malaria he’s suffered over the years,” said Peter. “His strength and resolve got him through. As he says in his account, ‘I will protect myself – my mind, soul and spirit – because I can’t protect my body’.”

Even when the political prisoners are released they and their families continue to be harassed. Work opportunities or chances to study at university disappear and they find themselves under constant surveillance.

Many have left Burma and live in exile in Thailand or other countries.

The trade union delegation has been given details of three prisoners who are currently held because of their support for labour organisations.

Peter and the other members of the team hope to bring pressure for their release by calling on the support of UK-based trade unions Unison, UCU, NASUWT, FBU, to pressurise the Burmese government.

Peter said: “Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese pro-democracy campaigner) has made a number of pronouncements which emphasise the importance of the release of all political prisoners from Burmese jails.

“The release of all political prisoners is so important because it signals a return to normality and the chance to bring about real change in Burma. For the staff at the office of the AAPP, that day can’t come soon enough.”