'They kick us, they beat us': Journalist on torture inside prison

Hong Kong (CNN Business)Myanmar’s military junta is using torture to extract information from detainees on the whereabouts of senior opposition members and activist leaders, according to an American citizen and journalist who was recently released from a Yangon prison.

Nathan Maung, 44, was detained for more than three months in Myanmar before being deported to the United States on June 15. During that time, he said he endured two weeks in a secretive military-run interrogation center in the country’s biggest city Yangon.
Speaking to CNN Business on Wednesday from Washington, DC, Nathan Maung described his time in the facility as “hell” and said he prepared himself to die there, believing the soldiers would kill him.

    He is one of more than 6,200 people arrested since Myanmar’s military, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, seized power in a coup on February 1, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and embarked on a bloody crackdown on dissent and on any perceived opposition to its rule. Mass street protests have been suppressed with deadly force.

      Former inmates, lawyers and family members of those held have previously told CNN the detainees have been subjected to torture during interrogation and held out of contact from loved ones. Some — including members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) Party — have died while in custody, their bodies showing signs of brutal torture.

      CNN Business has reached out to Myanmar’s military for comment.

      Nathan Maung was detained in Myanmar for more than three months.
      Despite months of escalating violence, the junta has said it is using restraint against what it called “riotous protesters,” who it accuses of attacking police and harming national security and stability.
      Nathan Maung is co-founder and editor in chief of the Myanmar online news site Kamayut Media. He was arrested on March 9 alongside co-founder and news producer Hanthar Nyein, 39, as security forces raided their office.
      Though now living in the United States, Nathan Maung said he is “not happy” and feels an overwhelming guilt he was released because of his American citizenship, while his friend and colleague Hanthar Nyein, a Myanmar national, remains incarcerated in the notorious Insein Prison.
      “We’ve been through the hell together. So, we should be released together,” Nathan Maung said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I really want him to know that we are not forgetting him. He’s not alone.”
      Danny Fenster, another American journalist who was prevented from boarding a flight out of Myanmar on May 24, remains in detention, also in Insein Prison.

      Weeks of ‘hell’

      Nathan Maung knew something was wrong when a convoy of military trucks full of soldiers pulled up outside Kamayut Media’s office in Yangon. Security forces barged through the door and raided the office, seizing equipment and taking Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein with them as they left.
      “They sent us to the interrogation center in Mingaladon,” he said, referring to a suburb of Yangon.
      There, Nathan Maung said they were beaten, denied water for two days and food for three. They were handcuffed and blindfolded nearly the entire two weeks they were there, he said.
      “They started with a blindfold and handcuffs and then started questioning. They kicked our face, hands and shoulder, all the time. For every answer, they beat us. Whatever we answered — whether correctly or incorrectly — they beat us. For three days, non-stop,” he said.
      Nathan Maung said the facility had five houses and one big office. Within the buildings, he said, there were four interrogation cells. He said his blindfold was removed on his final day there so he got a look at the room and the buildings.
      “In the room there is a CCTV camera, there’s no bed, only a small table and a chair so you sit all day and night,” he said. “You are blindfolded and there is no time to sleep. They won’t let you. They put the handcuffs in front so you can try and sleep like that, but every five minutes they show up and start the questioning.”
      The Americans locked up in Myanmar's notorious Insein prison
      This torture carried on for eight days, during which the detainees would be moved between the houses and cells.
      His colleague Hanthar Nyein bore the brunt of the torture, Nathan Maung said.
      “Hanthar was badly treated because he was Burmese national. He had to kneel down on the ground for like two days. His skin was burnt with a cigarette,” he said.
      Nathan Maung believes the soldiers were pressuring Hanthar Nyein to hand over his phone password, which would give them access to his encrypted communications and phone records with high profile opposition and activist leaders.
      For days, Hanthar Nyein held out from revealing the password, offering them false numbers in the hope his phone would automatically lock anyone out of using it. But the final straw came when the guards threatened to rape him.
      “Hanthar couldn’t stand for this and so he surrendered his password and they stopped beating,” Nathan Maung said.
      Nathan Maung’s phone broke during the arrest. The beatings stopped for him on the fourth day, he said, when the soldiers discovered he was a US citizen.
      “They stopped beating me and started asking questions about why the US government sent me and were giving me US funding, if I was working for the CIA — those kind of stupid questions,” he said. “I said no, I’m a journalist, no one gave me money.”
      So, the line of interrogation focused instead on his media company Kamayut Media. He said the soldiers asked about budgets and finances. “They are looking for any fundraising or where we got it,” he said.

      Journalists Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein in Myanmar.

      Nathan Maung believed he would die in the interrogation cell.
      “I thought, if we survived for two days at the beginning, we’ll be alive … but after that then nobody knows,” he said. “When they started giving us drinking water I thought, OK, we won’t die, we’ll live.”
      Nathan Maung said he meditated to help get through the mental and physical trauma. “That’s the only thing that saved us from the hell,” he said.
      But his ordeal was not over.
      After 15 days, Nathan Maung said he was transferred to a detention center adjoining Myanmar’s Insein Prison, an overcrowded penitentiary of about 10,000 inmates that has a reputation for ill-treatment and terrible conditions. For two more weeks, he was kept in a large cell with about 80 other people — all student activists, protesters, and NLD members, he said. Then he was moved to solitary confinement, where he stayed until his release on June 14.

      Stopping the junta’s violence

      Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein’s treatment in detention are not isolated incidents.
      On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch reported that many of the thousands of people arbitrarily detained by the military have been subjected to torture, routine beatings and other ill-treatment since the coup.
      “Myanmar’s military and police often hold detainees in custody for extended periods, in overcrowded and unhygienic interrogation centers and prisons. Those detained are frequently kept incommunicado, unable to contact relatives or legal counsel,” the organization wrote in the report. It added the victims “described beatings, burnings from lit cigarettes, prolonged stress positions, and gender-based violence.”
      Manny Maung, HRW’s Myanmar researcher and no relation to Nathan Maung, said in a statement that since the coup, authorities have been using torture “without fear of repercussions.”
      “The sheer brutality of the beatings and abuse shows the lengths to which Myanmar’s military authorities are going to silence anyone opposing the coup,” she said.
      Nathan Maung said he believes he was arrested because the military saw him “as an enemy.”

      Protesters make the three-finger salute of resistance during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday, April 27.

      Police officers clear a road after demonstrators spread placards in Yangon on Saturday, April 24.

      Protesters run from security forces during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on April 12.

      Buses from the Yangon Bus Service are seen burnt on April 12.

      Police talk as they arrive at the site of a demonstration in Yangon on April 12.

      Anti-coup protesters walk through Yangon's Hlaing township on April 9.

      An anti-coup protester raises a decorated Easter egg along with the three-fingered salute of resistance during a demonstration in Yangon on April 4.

      Protesters hold homemade pipe air guns during a demonstration in Yangon on April 3.

      Protesters hold improvised weapons in Yangon on April 3.

      Residents of the Tamwe area of Yangon participate in a candlelight vigil on April 3.

      People take part in a "flower strike" in Yangon on April 2.

      Protesters wearing face paint stand near a burning barricade during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on March 30.

      Soldiers walk toward anti-coup protesters during a demonstration in Yangon on March 30.

      Protesters run to avoid the military in Yangon on March 30.

      A man rides his bike as smoke billows from burning barricades in Yangon on March 30.

      Protesters throw stones and use slingshots as security forces approached in Yangon on March 28.

      Smoke rises after anti-coup protesters burned tires in Yangon on March 27.

      Protesters make incendiary devices during an anti-coup rally in Yangon.

      Smoke rises over Yangon's Thaketa Township on March 27.

      Mourners attend the funeral of Tin Hla, a 43-year-old who was reportedly shot dead by security forces during a protest.

      People cry in Yangon after a relative was shot during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

      Protesters occupy a street during a rally in Yangon on March 27.

      Protesters gesture during a march in Yangon on March 26.

      Thein Zaw, a journalist with the Associated Press, waves after being <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/24/media/ap-journalist-myanmar/index.html" target="_blank">released from a prison</a> in Yangon on March 24. He had been detained while covering an anti-coup protest in February.

      Men pray during the funeral of Khin Myo Chit, a 7-year-old girl <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/24/asia/myanmar-protests-7-year-old-killed-intl-hnk/index.html" target="_blank">who was shot in her home</a> by Myanmar's security forces on March 23. The girl was killed during a military raid, according to the Reuters news agency and the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

      A Buddhist monk uses binoculars as he squats behind a road barricade with others in Mandalay, Myanmar, on March 22.

      The mother of Aung Kaung Htet wails during the teenage boy's funeral on March 21. Aung, 15, was killed when military junta forces opened fire on anti-coup protesters in Yangon.

      Unidentified people cross the Tiau River at the India-Myanmar border on March 20. Some people from Myanmar <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/11/asia/myanmar-india-mizoram-intl-hnk/index.html" target="_blank">have sought refuge in India</a> since the protests began.

      An anti-coup protester jumps over a makeshift barricade in Yangon on March 19.

      Protesters take positions on Yangon's Bayint Naung Bridge on March 17. The bridge was blocked with an improvised barricade to prevent security forces from crossing.

      Medical students hold up the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2014/11/20/world/asia/thailand-hunger-games-salute/index.html" target="_blank">three-finger salute</a> at the Yangon funeral of Khant Nyar Hein on March 16. The first-year medical student was fatally shot during the crackdown.

      Protesters test Molotov cocktails in Yangon on March 16.

      Protesters stand near burning tires in Yangon on March 16.

      Anti-coup protesters pray in Yangon on March 14.

      Emergency workers transport the body of Shel Ye Win, who was shot by security forces in Mandalay.

      Smoke billows from the industrial zone of the Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon on March 14. The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar said several <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2021/03/15/asia/myanmar-deaths-chinese-factories-intl-hnk/index.html" target="_blank">Chinese-funded factories were set ablaze</a> during protests. Demonstrators have accused Beijing of supporting the coup and junta.

      A member of Myanmar's police is seen firing a weapon toward protesters in Yangon on March 13.

      People lay flowers and light candles beside bloodied pavement where protester Chit Min Thu was killed in Yangon.

      Military trucks are seen near a burning barricade in Yangon that was erected by protesters and then set on fire by soldiers on March 10.

      A protester holds a homemade shield during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on March 9.

      A protester discharges a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas that was fired by police in Yangon on March 8.

      Protesters string up longyi, traditional clothing worn in Myanmar, during a demonstration in Yangon on March 7.

      The wife of Phoe Chit, a protester who died during a demonstration, cries over her husband's coffin during his funeral in Yangon on March 5.

      Protesters step on portraits of Myanmar's armed forces chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, during a demonstration in Yangon on March 5.

      People cry in Yangon on March 4, near a spot where a family member was killed while protesting.

      Protesters lie on the ground after police opened fire to disperse an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.

      Schoolteachers wear traditional hats while participating in an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.

      A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.

      Anti-coup protesters run in Yangon on March 3. One of them discharged a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas fired by police.

      An anti-coup protester writes vital emergency information of another protester on his arm in Yangon.

      Police run toward protesters to disperse a demonstration in Yangon on March 3.

      A citizen of Myanmar living in India burns a poster of Myanmar's military chief during a protest in New Delhi on March 3.

      Medics help supply oxygen to a protester who was exposed to tear gas in Yangon on March 3.

      Protesters flee after tear gas was fired during a demonstration in Yangon on March 1.

      Protesters smoke behind shields during a demonstration in Yangon on March 1.

      Protesters in Yangon run away from tear gas on March 1.

      People in Yangon take part in a ceremony on February 28 to remember those who have been killed during demonstrations.

      Soldiers patrol during a protest in Yangon on February 28.

      Protesters take cover as they clash with police in Yangon on February 28.

      Protesters erect barricades during a demonstration in Yangon on February 28.

      Police charge at anti-coup protesters in Yangon on February 27.

      An injured protester receives medical attention in Mandalay after police and military forces cracked down on protests on February 26.

      Factory workers hold placards and shout slogans as they hold an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 25.

      Anti-coup protesters shout slogans in Yangon on February 25.

      A police officer films protesters near the Indonesian Embassy in Yangon on February 24.

      Thida Hnin cries during the funeral of her husband, Thet Naing Win, in Mandalay on February 23. He and another protester <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/20/asia/myanmar-police-protestors-reports-shooting-intl/index.html" target="_blank">were fatally shot by security forces</a> during an anti-coup protest.

      Police stand guard near the US Embassy in Yangon as protesters take part in an anti-coup demonstration on February 22.

      Protesters hold signs featuring civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in Yangon on February 22.

      Protesters gather for a demonstration on February 22.

      A man is carried after police dispersed protesters in Mandalay on February 20.

      A police truck uses a water cannon to disperse protesters in Mandalay on February 20.

      A police officer aims a gun toward protesters during a demonstration in Mandalay on February 20.

      A protester holds a Suu Kyi poster as he sits in front of police in Yangon on February 19.

      Protesters flash the three-fingered salute during a rally in downtown Yangon on February 19.

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      Protesters block a major road during a demonstration in Yangon on February 17.

      Demonstrators block a Yangon bridge with their cars on February 17.

      Buddhist monks march during an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 16.

      A Suu Kyi banner is displayed during demonstrations in Yangon on February 15.

      Soldiers carry barricades in Yangon on February 15.

      Elected members of Parliament wave to protesters in Yangon as police surround the headquarters of Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, on February 15.

      Medics clear the way as an injured protester is carried away for treatment in Mandalay, Myanmar, on February 15.

      People gather around an armored vehicle in Yangon on February 14.

      Young people in Yangon take part in an anti-coup hip-hop performance on February 14.

      Protesters demonstrate in Yangon on February 14.

      A child runs alongside an armored vehicle in Yangon on February 14.

      Protesters march through the city of Shwebo on February 13.

      Members of the Myanmar Photographers Association hold up their cameras as they call for Suu Kyi's release on February 13.

      Police detain a protester during a demonstration in Mawlamyine on February 12.

      Farmers ride a tractor with a Suu Kyi poster during a demonstration in Thongwa on February 12.

      A protester dressed as Lady Justice makes a three-finger salute as she takes part in a demonstration in Yangon on February 11.

      Protesters demonstrate in Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on February 11.

      Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country's military leader, makes a televised statement on February 11. He announced that<a href="https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/12/asia/myanmar-prisoner-release-intl-hnk/index.html" target="_blank"> more than 23,000 prisoners were set to be granted amnesty and released that day.</a> It was unclear what offenses the prisoners were convicted of.

      Bodybuilders take part in a protest in Yangon on February 11.

      People hold up letters that spell "get out dictators" during a demonstration at Inle Lake on February 11.

      A protester carries a child during a march in Yangon on February 10.

      Women in wedding gowns holds up anti-coup placards in Yangon on February 10.

      A police officer aims a gun during clashes with protesters in the capital of Naypyidaw on February 9.

      A protester pleads for police to refrain from using tear gas against demonstrators in Yangon on February 9.

      Police fire water cannons at protesters in Naypyidaw on February 9.

      Protesters gather in Yangon on February 8.

      Protesters flash three-fingered salutes as they face rows of riot police in Naypyidaw on February 8.

      Hospital workers show three-finger salutes during a demonstration in Yangon on February 7.

      A rally takes place in Yangon on February 7.

      Protesters shout slogans in Yangon on February 7.

      Protesters give roses to riot police in Yangon on February 6.

      Yangon residents bang objects to show support for Suu Kyi and her party on February 5.

      Soldiers block a road near Myanmar's Parliament on February 2, a day after the coup.

      He was one of at least 88 journalists arrested since the military takeover as part of a crackdown on independent media. Many media workers have been forced into exile abroad or have fled to rebel-controlled areas in the jungles. Those who remain in the cities have gone into hiding, and swap safe houses every few days to avoid arrest.
      “They tortured me because I believe in democracy and human rights and freedom of expression,” Nathan Maung said.
      The military junta has struggled to consolidate its power over the whole country, as it continues to face mass public opposition. Large-scale nationwide protests seen in the months following the takeover were brutally suppressed. In their place, local militia groups have formed to defend towns and villages from military violence and battles between junta forces and armed resistance groups are being waged on multiple fronts around the country.
      “Civil war is happening now, it’s already a failed state,” Nathan Maung said.
      Nathan Maung said the international community cannot stand by while the junta continues to operate with impunity and lawlessness against its people and called for “aggressive action” against the military.
      “We don’t have time to wait and see. There are thousands refugees going to flee to the border, a humanitarian crisis happening now,” he said.
      Standing in a park, surrounded by beech trees in Washington, DC — thousands of miles away from the cells, the torture, and the violence — Nathan Maung feels torn, but says he plans to return to Asia and base himself in neighboring Thailand to continue fighting for a democratic Myanmar.
      “Sometimes, I dream I really went back to prison, because my body is here but my mind is with my friends, my journalists, my country,” he said.

        “All my life, I have been working for a free Burma, as citizen and as a journalist. Until I die, I have to work for that. I have to take care of my people. They deserve democracy and human rights,” he said.
        — Caitlin Hu contributed to this report.
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