By WAI MOE Thursday, November 19, 2009
Sitting 300 kilometers off the Burmese mainland in the Indian Ocean, the Coco Islands were once known as “Burma’s Devils Island,” infamous as a detention center for political prisoners.
After the penal colony was closed in 1971, the tiny islands—which form the northern link in the Andaman Islands chain—were handed over to the Burmese navy. In the 1990s, China reportedly established a signals intelligence base on Great Coco Island, though it was never confirmed.
And now, Burma’s tourism authorities intend to open the islands up to foreign and domestic tour groups with the first ferry of tourists due to sail on Friday.
“Four hundred tourists will sleep on the boat for two nights and will spend two days on the island,” said an official from the Rangoon Division Peace and Development Council.
A return ticket price for the first tour has been quoted at 25,000 kyat (US $25) although the price is expected to be much higher for foreign tourists. Travel agencies in Rangoon expect the tours to be popular though little is known about any facilities on the islands.
A travel agent in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns, said that the 400 tourists will sleep in wooden bungalows on Great Coco Island.
The three small islands that make up the chain are home to a small fishing community, coconut farmers and a handful of marine biologists who monitor the conservation of green turtles.
Apart from that, tourists will find little more than palm trees, white sandy beaches and pristine waters.
The Coco Islands were under Indian control until 1882 when they were passed into the administration of British Burma. The British planned to build a prison on the islands, but they did not pursue the plan.
However, under late dictator Gen Ne Win’s interim government, a penal colony was founded on Great Coco Island in January 1959. Political dissidents accused of threatening security and disrupting the social stability of Burma were sent to the penal colony.
“After Ne Win’s coup d’état in 1962, and the installation of a military government, the prison gained the reputation of being a Burmese ‘Devil’s Island,’” wrote Burma researcher Andrew Selth.
The number of political prisoners sent to the prison camp on Great Coco Island increased in 1969. They had to harvest coconuts, work on “development projects” and grow their own food.
Many of the dissidents were members and sympathizers of the Communist Party of Burma. Of the thousands of prisoners sent to the island, only three prisoners—Mann Aung Kyi, Mann Nyein Maung and Aung Ngwe—are known to have escaped when they floated across the Indian Ocean clutching driftwood. However, they were rearrested when they reached the Burmese mainland.
Due to worsening food and living conditions, political prisoners on the island conducted three known hunger strikes. The first hunger strike was in 1969 and ended after seven days when the authorities gave in to their demands.
In the following two years, a 40-day long strike and a 53-day long strike occurred. After eight hunger strikers had died during the second protest, the prison authorities gave in and closed the penal colony on Great Coco Island in December 1971. All the prisoners were transferred to Insein Prison in Rangoon.
Panmawaddy Naval Base took over from the disused prison and remains there to this day.
A strategic point in the Indian Ocean, the Coco Islands attracted attention in 1992 when analysts and journalists reported China’s involvement in setting up a radar station, apparently to monitor Indian activity. However, other Burma watchers, such as Selth, say the reports are untrue.
Some analysts said that the base on Great Coco Island was a part of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, aimed at building naval bases from the South China Sea to the Middle East to guard China’s energy supplies.
Even though evidence has surfaced regarding China’s assistance in upgrading the Burmese naval base on the islands, there is still a lack of solid evidence about China’s military involvement.
Analysts point to the Coco Islands strategic location and China’s new billion-dollar pipeline project from Burma’s Arakan State to its southwestern province of Yunnan, which will ultimately carry more than 80 percent of China’s imported oil and gas.
China’s oil and gas will pass through the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean and analysts say that local naval bases would be a valuable asset.