Disclaimer: ‘Jap’ in a lot of the world, including where I’m from, is a pretty racist term now. It’s included here because of its historical nature.
“For Christmas the Japs gave us a holiday and extra rations, and the cooks excelled themselves and gave us a really good feed. In the morning we had a carol service, conducted by Lieutenant Brian Horncastle, and then a sports meeting. In the evening there was a concert with alternate turns by British and Americans. The Americans had assured us for some months that their General Stilwell, or “Uncle Joe” as they called him, had announced his intention of spending Christmas in Rangoon, so that when one of them appeared in the middle of the concert dressed as “Uncle Joe” with a “Sorry I’m late, you fellows”, he received an uproarious welcome.”
– Philip Stibbe, from an account of his final Christmas in Japanese captivity in 1944, ‘Return via Rangoon’
On the 1st of May, one day after Hitler committed suicide, Operation Dracula was launched. It was a joint operation of British, Indian and American forces, intended to finally retake Rangoon from the Japanese. The majority of Japanese troops had already left Yangon, and the operation was a success.
During the assault, a reconnaissance plane flew over the city, and on the rooftop of Insein jail saw the above message. The Japanese had left behind many prisoners too sick to march, who were now impatient for relief. ‘Extract digit’ is more polite way of saying a British slang term for ‘hurry up’: ‘pull your finger out your arse’.
Insein was built to help relieve the pressure on the original Rangoon city prison (now demolished and replaced with the New General Hospital). Both prisons were built on the Pentonville model, with a central hub and wings radiating from the hub like spokes on a wheel. The Pentonville is sometimes said to be inspired by Jeremy Betham’s ‘panopticon’ design, where inmates can be observed at all times, but don’t know themselves when they’re being watched – creating an atmosphere of total surveillance.
Pre-colonial prisons in Myanmar usually kept prisoners chained in mass enclosures, and conditions were dire. Punishment was usually chosen from a menu of flogging, execution, exile, mutilation or branding, when convicts would have their faces tattooed with their crimes. Conditions improved slightly in British prisons, and confinement became the primary form of punishment. However, the use of convict labour continued, as did exile. There’s an interesting article on continuity between colonial and pre-colonial prisons here.
When the Japanese took Rangoon, the jail was used to hold prisoners of war. Accounts of the experience are bleak, and mistreatment and malnutrition were rife. Sick prisoners were often untreated and there were deaths daily. When the Japanese left Rangoon prior to the attack, they marched many of the healthier POWs with them, before finally abandoning them near Pegu.
In recent history, Insein is notorious for the housing of political prisoners, and for stories of truly appalling conditions and brutal punishments. Aung San Suu Kyi herself spent time in Insein, though in a dedicated area built to house her. The government claims that all political prisoners have now been released, but this is disputed by organisations like the AAPP, who as of November 2017 assert there are 95 imprisoned awaiting trial inside prison, and as many as 133 awaiting trial outside. Recently two Reuters journalists were arrested under colonial era legislation and are being held in an undisclosed location. Since their arrest took place on the outskirts of Yangon, it’s likely that they also spent this Christmas inside Insein prison.