BURMA: In memoriam: Phyo Wai Aung, a courageous fighter against inhuman abuse 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is greatly aggrieved to learn of the tragic death of Phyo Wai Aung in Rangoon, Burma during the early morning hours of 4 January 2013.

Phyo Wai Aung was an aspiring young electrical engineer with a loving family when in April 2010 police arrested him at home late one night for alleged involvement in a bomb attack at a crowded festival. They tortured him brutally for weeks to force him to confess to the crime, for which they had been unable to arrest the actual suspects. In a farcical trial held within the central prison, he recounted the torture in detail. After pointlessly drawn out proceedings, the court convicted him of all charges and sentenced him to death in May 2012. In August, the government granted him clemency–tacit recognition of his innocence unaccompanied by a willingness to admit to this fact–and ordered his release. Full details are on the campaign page that the AHRC established on this case: www.humanrights.asia/countries/burma/phyo-wai-aung

The torture and atrocious ill treatment of Phyo Wai Aung took their toll. While in custody he was repeatedly denied medical attention for the damage caused to him physically, to say nothing of the psychological impact. In May 2012 the AHRC had already noted that Phyo Wai Aung was critically ill due to denial of medical treatment while in custody. According to doctors then, on the basis of a CT scan he would have only a few months to live. His brother writing to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar (Burma) at the time said that it seemed that Phyo Wai Aung would have to pay with his life to show how bad the authorities in his country are. Sadly, both he and the doctors were correct.

When two directors of the AHRC, Bijo Francis and Basil Fernando visited Phyo Wai Aung and his family in December, they found a young man who was paralyzed from the waist down and unable to walk. But they also met a young man who was still full of life and despite everything that he had suffered was determined to go on and make the best of things. He remained hopeful that he would recover, and talked about how he would want to be able to provide for his daughter’s education, just as any father would want.

Phyo Wai Aung also hoped to pursue his case, clear his name, and one day bring to account those responsible for his torture. Unlike many victims of torture in Burma who relieved at the end of custody are too fearful to try to do anything to obtain redress, Phyo Wai Aung had a strong determination to fight back. The AHRC directors promised him that they would do whatever they could to assist in these goals. Unfortunately, his physical strength did not match that of his spirit. Nonetheless, the Asian Human Rights Commission stands firm in its commitment to continue to fight for justice and call for the perpetrators of Phyo Wai Aung’s torture to be prosecuted, and for his family to obtain the redress that it deserves.

The case of Phyo Wai Aung was at the centre of the AHRC’s work on Burma in the last few years, and for this reason his loss is felt especially strongly in our organization today. However, we are under no illusions that the incidence of maltreatment and torture in Burma’s police stations and prisons is diminishing as a result of changing political conditions, as some would like to believe. Just last month at a programme held in Hong Kong with Burmese colleagues we heard of many harrowing recent cases of torture that have also left victims dead or severely damaged.

Every day there are more and more people forced to suffer like Phyo Wai Aung. Therefore in remembering Phyo Wai Aung today we are also remembering all those who have suffered similarly, who are suffering similarly in his country. In Phyo Wai Aung’s name we say: stop torture now!