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. Read MoreCNN 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 prisonThis 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 violenceNathan 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.” Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters make the three-finger salute of resistance during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday, April 27.Hide Caption 1 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice officers clear a road after demonstrators spread placards in Yangon on Saturday, April 24.Hide Caption 2 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters run from security forces during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on April 12.Hide Caption 3 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarBuses from the Yangon Bus Service are seen burnt on April 12.Hide Caption 4 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice talk as they arrive at the site of a demonstration in Yangon on April 12.Hide Caption 5 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAnti-coup protesters walk through Yangon’s Hlaing township on April 9.Hide Caption 6 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAn anti-coup protester raises a decorated Easter egg along with the three-fingered salute of resistance during a demonstration in Yangon on April 4.Hide Caption 7 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters hold homemade pipe air guns during a demonstration in Yangon on April 3.Hide Caption 8 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters hold improvised weapons in Yangon on April 3.Hide Caption 9 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarResidents of the Tamwe area of Yangon participate in a candlelight vigil on April 3.Hide Caption 10 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople take part in a “flower strike” in Yangon on April 2.Hide Caption 11 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters wearing face paint stand near a burning barricade during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on March 30.Hide Caption 12 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSoldiers walk toward anti-coup protesters during a demonstration in Yangon on March 30.Hide Caption 13 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters run to avoid the military in Yangon on March 30.Hide Caption 14 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA man rides his bike as smoke billows from burning barricades in Yangon on March 30.Hide Caption 15 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters throw stones and use slingshots as security forces approached in Yangon on March 28.Hide Caption 16 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSmoke rises after anti-coup protesters burned tires in Yangon on March 27.Hide Caption 17 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters make incendiary devices during an anti-coup rally in Yangon.Hide Caption 18 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSmoke rises over Yangon’s Thaketa Township on March 27.Hide Caption 19 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMourners attend the funeral of Tin Hla, a 43-year-old who was reportedly shot dead by security forces during a protest.Hide Caption 20 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople cry in Yangon after a relative was shot during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters.Hide Caption 21 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters occupy a street during a rally in Yangon on March 27.Hide Caption 22 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters gesture during a march in Yangon on March 26.Hide Caption 23 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarThein Zaw, a journalist with the Associated Press, waves after being released from a prison in Yangon on March 24. He had been detained while covering an anti-coup protest in February.Hide Caption 24 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMen pray during the funeral of Khin Myo Chit, a 7-year-old girl who was shot in her home 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.Hide Caption 25 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA Buddhist monk uses binoculars as he squats behind a road barricade with others in Mandalay, Myanmar, on March 22.Hide Caption 26 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarThe 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.Hide Caption 27 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarUnidentified people cross the Tiau River at the India-Myanmar border on March 20. Some people from Myanmar have sought refuge in India since the protests began.Hide Caption 28 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAn anti-coup protester jumps over a makeshift barricade in Yangon on March 19.Hide Caption 29 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters 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.Hide Caption 30 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMedical students hold up the three-finger salute at the Yangon funeral of Khant Nyar Hein on March 16. The first-year medical student was fatally shot during the crackdown.Hide Caption 31 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters test Molotov cocktails in Yangon on March 16.Hide Caption 32 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters stand near burning tires in Yangon on March 16.Hide Caption 33 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAnti-coup protesters pray in Yangon on March 14.Hide Caption 34 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarEmergency workers transport the body of Shel Ye Win, who was shot by security forces in Mandalay.Hide Caption 35 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSmoke billows from the industrial zone of the Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon on March 14. The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar said several Chinese-funded factories were set ablaze during protests. Demonstrators have accused Beijing of supporting the coup and junta.Hide Caption 36 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA member of Myanmar’s police is seen firing a weapon toward protesters in Yangon on March 13.Hide Caption 37 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople lay flowers and light candles beside bloodied pavement where protester Chit Min Thu was killed in Yangon.Hide Caption 38 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMilitary trucks are seen near a burning barricade in Yangon that was erected by protesters and then set on fire by soldiers on March 10.Hide Caption 39 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester holds a homemade shield during an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon on March 9.Hide Caption 40 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester discharges a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas that was fired by police in Yangon on March 8.Hide Caption 41 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters string up longyi, traditional clothing worn in Myanmar, during a demonstration in Yangon on March 7.Hide Caption 42 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarThe 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.Hide Caption 43 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters step on portraits of Myanmar’s armed forces chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, during a demonstration in Yangon on March 5.Hide Caption 44 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople cry in Yangon on March 4, near a spot where a family member was killed while protesting.Hide Caption 45 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters lie on the ground after police opened fire to disperse an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.Hide Caption 46 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSchoolteachers wear traditional hats while participating in an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.Hide Caption 47 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration in Mandalay on March 3.Hide Caption 48 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAnti-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.Hide Caption 49 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAn anti-coup protester writes vital emergency information of another protester on his arm in Yangon.Hide Caption 50 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice run toward protesters to disperse a demonstration in Yangon on March 3.Hide Caption 51 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA citizen of Myanmar living in India burns a poster of Myanmar’s military chief during a protest in New Delhi on March 3.Hide Caption 52 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMedics help supply oxygen to a protester who was exposed to tear gas in Yangon on March 3.Hide Caption 53 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters flee after tear gas was fired during a demonstration in Yangon on March 1.Hide Caption 54 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters smoke behind shields during a demonstration in Yangon on March 1.Hide Caption 55 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters in Yangon run away from tear gas on March 1.Hide Caption 56 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople in Yangon take part in a ceremony on February 28 to remember those who have been killed during demonstrations.Hide Caption 57 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSoldiers patrol during a protest in Yangon on February 28.Hide Caption 58 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters take cover as they clash with police in Yangon on February 28.Hide Caption 59 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters erect barricades during a demonstration in Yangon on February 28.Hide Caption 60 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice charge at anti-coup protesters in Yangon on February 27.Hide Caption 61 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAn injured protester receives medical attention in Mandalay after police and military forces cracked down on protests on February 26.Hide Caption 62 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarFactory workers hold placards and shout slogans as they hold an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 25.Hide Caption 63 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarAnti-coup protesters shout slogans in Yangon on February 25.Hide Caption 64 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA police officer films protesters near the Indonesian Embassy in Yangon on February 24.Hide Caption 65 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarThida Hnin cries during the funeral of her husband, Thet Naing Win, in Mandalay on February 23. He and another protester were fatally shot by security forces during an anti-coup protest.Hide Caption 66 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice stand guard near the US Embassy in Yangon as protesters take part in an anti-coup demonstration on February 22.Hide Caption 67 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters hold signs featuring civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in Yangon on February 22. Hide Caption 68 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters gather for a demonstration on February 22.Hide Caption 69 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA man is carried after police dispersed protesters in Mandalay on February 20. Hide Caption 70 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA police truck uses a water cannon to disperse protesters in Mandalay on February 20.Hide Caption 71 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA police officer aims a gun toward protesters during a demonstration in Mandalay on February 20.Hide Caption 72 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester holds a Suu Kyi poster as he sits in front of police in Yangon on February 19.Hide Caption 73 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters flash the three-fingered salute during a rally in downtown Yangon on February 19.Hide Caption 74 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarFlower tributes and sympathy messages are left in Yangon for Mya Thweh Thweh Khine. The 20-year-old was shot in the head at a protest in Naypyidaw, and she died on February 19.Hide Caption 75 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters block a major road during a demonstration in Yangon on February 17.Hide Caption 76 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarDemonstrators block a Yangon bridge with their cars on February 17.Hide Caption 77 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarBuddhist monks march during an anti-coup protest in Yangon on February 16.Hide Caption 78 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA Suu Kyi banner is displayed during demonstrations in Yangon on February 15.Hide Caption 79 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSoldiers carry barricades in Yangon on February 15.Hide Caption 80 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarElected 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.Hide Caption 81 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMedics clear the way as an injured protester is carried away for treatment in Mandalay, Myanmar, on February 15.Hide Caption 82 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople gather around an armored vehicle in Yangon on February 14.Hide Caption 83 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarYoung people in Yangon take part in an anti-coup hip-hop performance on February 14.Hide Caption 84 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters demonstrate in Yangon on February 14.Hide Caption 85 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA child runs alongside an armored vehicle in Yangon on February 14.Hide Caption 86 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters march through the city of Shwebo on February 13.Hide Caption 87 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarMembers of the Myanmar Photographers Association hold up their cameras as they call for Suu Kyi’s release on February 13.Hide Caption 88 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice detain a protester during a demonstration in Mawlamyine on February 12.Hide Caption 89 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarFarmers ride a tractor with a Suu Kyi poster during a demonstration in Thongwa on February 12.Hide Caption 90 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester dressed as Lady Justice makes a three-finger salute as she takes part in a demonstration in Yangon on February 11.Hide Caption 91 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters demonstrate in Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on February 11.Hide Caption 92 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarGen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s military leader, makes a televised statement on February 11. He announced that more than 23,000 prisoners were set to be granted amnesty and released that day. It was unclear what offenses the prisoners were convicted of.Hide Caption 93 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarBodybuilders take part in a protest in Yangon on February 11.Hide Caption 94 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPeople hold up letters that spell “get out dictators” during a demonstration at Inle Lake on February 11.Hide Caption 95 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester carries a child during a march in Yangon on February 10.Hide Caption 96 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarWomen in wedding gowns holds up anti-coup placards in Yangon on February 10.Hide Caption 97 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA police officer aims a gun during clashes with protesters in the capital of Naypyidaw on February 9.Hide Caption 98 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA protester pleads for police to refrain from using tear gas against demonstrators in Yangon on February 9.Hide Caption 99 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarPolice fire water cannons at protesters in Naypyidaw on February 9.Hide Caption 100 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters gather in Yangon on February 8.Hide Caption 101 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters flash three-fingered salutes as they face rows of riot police in Naypyidaw on February 8.Hide Caption 102 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarHospital workers show three-finger salutes during a demonstration in Yangon on February 7.Hide Caption 103 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarA rally takes place in Yangon on February 7.Hide Caption 104 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters shout slogans in Yangon on February 7.Hide Caption 105 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarProtesters give roses to riot police in Yangon on February 6.Hide Caption 106 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarYangon residents bang objects to show support for Suu Kyi and her party on February 5. Hide Caption 107 of 108 Photos: Unrest in MyanmarSoldiers block a road near Myanmar’s Parliament on February 2, a day after the coup.Hide Caption 108 of 108He 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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