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Myanmar families search for missing loved ones

Myanmar's notorious Insein prison is a place few people visit voluntarily but Maw Maw hoped she might find her nephew who disappeared during the junta's crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

world Updated: Nov 16, 2007 11:49 IST

Myanmar's notorious Insein prison is a place few people visit voluntarily but Maw Maw hoped she might find her nephew who disappeared during the junta's crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

She was among a group who came to send parcels to relatives held in the vast old British-built colonial prison outside Yangon.

Her nephew Ko Ko Zaw went missing nearly two months ago after coming to Yangon to seek work to help his school teacher mother support their family in central Myanmar, Maw Maw said.

Ko Ko Zaw, 25, and a friend were among crowds watching anti-government protests near Sule Pagoda on September 26 when troops and police moved in, and he has not been heard from since, his aunt said.

Maw Maw has spent the past seven weeks searching for him at police stations and makeshift detention centres across the city where hundreds of people were held after the crackdown.

Drawing a blank, she finally came to Insein prison, where she was given a list of prisoners, with about 10 inmates on each page.

"I saw more than 10 pages including men, women as well as monks when I tried to find my nephew's name on the list of prisoners," she told AFP.

She didn't find her nephew on the list and a police officer advised her to just wait for him to come home.

"The officer said that my nephew will come back if he did not do anything wrong," she said.

Though she did not dare complain, "I wanted to ask the police whether just watching an event is a crime," said Maw Maw.

"We can't even look for the lost ones openly because we felt threatened that the government would arrest us too while we are looking for Ko Ko Zaw."

Thousands were detained over the nationwide protests which began in August in response to a spike in fuel prices but swelled in the following weeks into the biggest anti-government demonstrations the junta has faced since 1988.

Others went into hiding to avoid arrest.

The authorities said last week they had released all but 91 of the nearly 3,000 they said were detained in connection with the demonstrations.

Rights group Amnesty International however estimates 700 are still being held and has called for the release of all political prisoners.

UN human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro arrived in Myanmar on Sunday on a mission to investigate the death toll and numbers detained in the crackdown.

Relatives of detainees said his visit, which ended Thursday, had already had an impact.

Since last week, before the envoy arrived, families were allowed to send parcels of food, medicine, blankets and overcoats to inmates in Insein prison.

One former inmate said dozens of detainees were transferred to the jail in October.

"No one arrived in our cell in September but many including monks, students and artists arrived in the first week of October," said the former inmate, one of five leaders of 1988 pro-democracy protests who were arrested in August for protesting against fuel price hikes.

When the five were released in early November, 79 people, including 21 monks, remained in the cells where he was held with other political prisoners in Insein, he said.

"I expect there will be more releases after Pinheiro's visit," he added.

Ko Ko Zaw's mother came to Yangon in the last week of October hoping to find her son.

"I got a shock when I saw Ko Ko Zaw's mother. She got really skinny as she couldn't eat and sleep well since she heard no news about her son for one-and-a-half months," said Maw Maw.

They received no help from state agencies in their search, she said.

Ko Ko Zaw's mother left a photo of her son and his personal data with the International Committee of the Red Cross before returning to her home town.

In a last hope, she wrote a letter to broadcast media, although she knew she could be arrested for contacting non state-run media.

"We parents are so worried about our son who has been lost in Yangon since September 26," she wrote.

Maw Maw said she too was concerned about his fate.

"I can't imagine how Ko Ko Zaw's mother feels. Even as his auntie I feel so worried for him as we don't know what happened to him," said Maw Maw.

"Is he still alive or not or is he well? We desperately want to know where he is."

First Published: Nov 16, 2007 11:46 IST