Zarli Aye Kyaw is a woman who uses drugs from Yangon. She spent over four years in prison for being arrested in September 2014 for drugs use related issues. Zarli was originally sentenced to ten years, but was released in May 2019 following a mass Presidential Amnesty. Jail sentences prescribed by Myanmar drug laws are very lengthy, including for minor offences such as drug use and possession for personal use. The country’s prisons have problematic living conditions and are overcrowded. Access to health care in prisons remains challenging and often dependent on prisoners’ ability to pay bribes. Zarli below relates her life experience and the time she spent in Insein prison, the country’s largest and most infamous detention facility. Over the years, she worked as a peer educator on HIV related issues for a drug user network in Myanmar. She continued similar activities while incarcerated in prison.
A Commentary by Zarli Aye Kyaw
Everyone has a dream when they are young. My dream was to be a doctor. When I was in school, I was excellent at sports and I was also part of the selection of school sprint running team. However, my destiny changed, as I was forced to quit from school because I took part in political protests by students during 1988-1989. It was the start of ruining my life.
As I had a lot of free time, I started having a lot of friends and going to parties and nightclubs. I felt so proud to drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes, and then later also started using heroin, which we called ‘No.4’. At first I snorted heroin, and later on I started to inject it. At first, I used it just for fun and to try something new, and I was doing fine when I was not using it. Later, I started using it more frequently with my friends whenever we were having a good time or a bad time. At that stage, I really liked it.
When I became addicted to heroin, my life was torn apart, and I got HIV infected at that time. I felt my life was ruined, and I felt more and more disappointed at myself. Taking a daily dose of antiretroviral therapy (ART) for treatment of HIV for such a long time also made me feel terrible. At that stage, I was using heroin again and again, and then I was caught. When I was arrested, I was on methadone treatment, which is a substitute for heroin. I was arrested on Sunday 6 September 2014. Two days later, I was transferred from the Bahan Township Court to Insein Jail. I asked them if they could let me stay in custody at the police station for one month, but I found out that this could only be possible by bribing the police station officer. I did not have enough time to find money so I was forced to go to Insein jail in the blue colored prison car.
At that time, the head doctor from the Drug Dependency Unit of the Ywar Thar Gyi Mental Health Hospital called my brother, and said “my patient will be in trouble, you should come and take methadone for her”. He said this fully with love and compassion as a doctor. So my brother went to Ywar Thar Gyi to pick up methadone for me. The next day, my brother came to Insein Jail to visit me, and for the first time gave methadone to me in the women jail legally. It was because of the doctor’s signature and his compassionate effort for his patients to provide methadone at every possible place. It is really necessary to have such kind of doctors for us drug users. Because of the compassion of the staff, I could stay at the women hospital in Insein Jail for one month for free [without paying a bribe] and tailed off methadone, and got some necessary treatment for this. After that, I got discharged and was readmitted again in jail by the prison warden. Whenever I could meet with a medical staff who saw me as a patient to take care of, I could go to hospital for one more month again. When I was in the Insein Jail, although I was under custody care because I was not sentenced yet, most of the staff there treated me like a prisoner. I was discharged from the prison hospital and readmitted to jail again and again.
Then on 13 August 2015, I was sentenced to prison for ten years; six years for the charge of possession of narcotic drugs in hand, and another four years for the urine test being positive. But it could have been even longer, because Dr. Soe Naing from Alliance Myanmar came to the court and spoke out for me, and my sentence was reduced. I could have been sentenced for ten years for possession of narcotic drug under section 16/C of the law, and for another five years under section 15 of the law for the positive urine test. So the total sentence could have been fifteen years. But Dr. Soe Naing testified in court for me, and he said to the judge: “she was a drug user, but she helped a lot in social welfare activities with us. Also, her health is in bad shape. She is HIV positive and also has Hepatitis C. I really respect the law but please lower her sentence”. Because of that, I was sentenced for only ten years.