YANGON During his four years in a Myanmar jail, Buddhist monk Ashin Kawvida was kept in solitary confinement. Interrogators beat him. Prison seemed to have no rules, he said.
After Myanmar freed about 230 political detainees in a general amnesty on October 12, interviews with Kawvida and other inmates offer a glimpse into prison conditions seldom reported during half a century of military rule that ended in March.
While a new civilian government embarks on reforms that could slowly open one of the world's most isolated states, its prisons and those still in jail are a reminder of the challenges that lie ahead for a country deeply scarred by decades of oppression and bloody crackdowns.
Some prisoners were kept isolated or were physically and mentally abused while in jail, the inmates say. Medical aid was rare. Prison officers often delivered punishments with impunity. Hardened criminals bribed guards to get better treatment than political detainees, they said.
"Prison conditions changed depending on the officer in charge," Kawvida, 59, told Reuters after his release. "They have no rules. One officer was very cruel and refused to allow my relatives who had come from about 500 miles away to visit me twice."
Government sources say a second prisoner amnesty is expected soon. That could re-ignite debate over how long the West will keep sanctions on a country that was among Asia's most promising just 50 years ago, rich in natural gas, gemstones and timber, and nestled strategically between booming India and China.
But as more prisoners tell their stories, it also raises questions over what, if any, punishment should be handed out to the reclusive Southeast Asian nation's former leaders, many of whom are still in positions of power.
Some dissidents have remained in prison since 1988 demonstrations that were crushed by the then-military junta that ruled since 1962, when the country was known as Burma. Some, like Kawvida, made their voices heard again in 2007 in an uprising led by monks that ended with scores killed.
Kawvida was arrested in September that year in protests that surged in the commercial capital Yangon before troops opened fire with bullets and tear gas, clubbing and dragging away hundreds of monks, the revered moral heart of Burmese society.
"We all were forced to lie down on our stomach," Kawvida recalled of his arrest. "As soon as they saw me, they handcuffed my hands and punched me in my face without saying anything. They ransacked everything in our monastery and took away over 70 boxes of personal belongings of the monks."
He was interrogated for a week, sometimes violently, and forced to give up his robe, a symbol of the simple life of a monk. He was tried without defense and sentenced a year later to four years in Thayet Prison, about 350 km (220 miles) to the northwest, where he was kept in isolation.
MANY STILL IN PRISON
The United States and Europe have said freeing political prisoners is crucial to even considering lifting sanctions that have isolated the former British colony and, over the years, pushed it closer to China. A senior political adviser to President Thein Sein told Reuters hundreds more political detainees may soon be released.
But the exact number behind bars is unclear.
Rights groups and the United Nations have put it at about 2,100. But Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko told U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana in August the number was 600, or about 400 after the latest October 12 amnesty.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that tracks prisoners, identified some 1,245 "political prisoners." But diplomats and some independent analysts question those numbers and say they depend on different definitions of political prisoners and whether armed rebels or those who used force to oppose the government are included.
The number of non-combatant "prisoners of conscience" appears to be about 600, said Derek Tonkin, Britain's former ambassador to Thailand and now chairman of Network Myanmar, a civic group. He cited a review of the AAPP's list of prisoners by European diplomatic missions in Thailand that identified about 800 before last month's amnesty.
Rights group Amnesty International has dropped its estimates of about 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar. "There are different definitions and those need to be reconciled. It is incumbent on the government to do that," said Benjamin Zawacki, an Amnesty Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok.
The pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself released last year from 15 years of house arrest, says about 400 activists remain behind bars.
"MOST OF MY TIME ALONE"
Freed prisoners will strengthen Suu Kyi's movement but there are also concerns some could push for changes more radical than the government and Suu Kyi want, at least at this time.
Interviews with those who have been freed, however, suggest the majority are like 41-year-old Ko Kyi Lwin, who simply wishes for the right to oppose the government publicly.
After 12 years in prison, the pro-democracy activist wants to rejoin Suu Kyi's movement quickly.
"I had to spend most of my time alone," Ko Kyi Lwin said of Thayawady Prison, north of Yangon, where he was sent for trying to organize protests 12 years ago.
"Prison staff normally discriminate," he said. "They normally hate and suppress political prisoners. Those who bribe them get better treatment."
Prison guards inflicted both physical and mental abuse, said Su Su Nway, 39, a prominent labor activist who was arrested in November 2007 for plastering leaflets on a wall in Yangon.
"I was not allowed to talk to or see anybody. I didn't receive any proper medical treatment since there was no prison doctor," she said in an interview after her release from Khamti Prison near the western border with India.
Su Su Nway and many other freed prisoners say they will support 66-year-old Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 was voided by a military intent on maintaining power.
Suu Kyi has been blocked from politics since returning to her homeland in 1988. But after the military ceded power last year to a civilian government stacked with former generals, an official dialogue was opened with her.
She may soon get her long-sought chance to enter politics. Although her NLD was officially disbanded for refusing to take part in last year's election, it still exists and is likely to be re-registered under a newly amended party law.
That will give Suu Kyi an opportunity to stand in a by-election expected this year, say NLD officials.
She will find support among former detainees, who are determined to return to politics despite their incarceration.
"I've become more resolute than before, more bound and determined to carry out political activities," said Phyo Phyo Aung, a 23-year-old engineering student who was arrested during the 2007 uprising and sent to a remote prison about 300 km (190 miles) southeast of Yangon.
"Most of the prison staff at the low level are very rude and cruel," she said. "I had to spend most of my time there alone."
Her goal now is to fight for the release of other prisoners, including Min Ko Naing, a still influential leader of the 1988 uprising that the military crushed, and about 30 other leaders of the so-called 88 Generation Students Group.
That group of inmates could pose a threat to the government along with an unidentified number of former military officers arrested in 2004 when the junta purged former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt after he was accused of corruption.
"The prisoners of most concern are the former military intelligence officers," said Christopher Roberts, who studies Asian politics at the Australian National University. "They are the ones who are potentially a threat to the current government and they would be seen as a faction that might compete for power, so I'd doubt they will be freed at this stage."
Still, many expect a second amnesty before a November 17 summit of Southeast Asian leaders where the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to approve Myanmar's bid to take ASEAN's rotating presidency in 2014, giving the new government some coveted recognition.
But the freeing of activists is unlikely to be the catalyst to end sanctions.
While Washington applauded the prisoner amnesty, it has urged more reforms and expressed concern over continued violence against ethnic minorities in the rural north and east.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, on Tuesday said he was concerned about reports of 15 political prisoners denied water while on a hunger strike in Yangon's Insein prison, including some kept in cells designed for dogs, according to a U.N. statement.
U.S. special envoy to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has said there were "credible reports" of continuing human rights abuses against women and children.
The European Union is not due to revisit sanctions until the next review in April. Even if all prisoners are released this year, the White House may find it hard to lift sanctions ahead of the 2012 presidential election given Myanmar's history of rights abuses and reports of continued ethnic violence.
Prison amnesties, however, could have more effect in Asia.
"It is too early for U.S. and European governments to consider lifting sanctions," said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who tracks Myanmar.
"But what it will do is help improve relations with ASEAN and in particular, India and Japan, which are looking for the chance to compete with China for the Myanmar market. These countries will now be more emboldened to engage economically."
(Writing by Jason Szep, Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Martin Petty, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)