Burma’s Prisoners of Conscience

By Joseph Zeitlyn
Source: The Guardian

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This year’s Burma human rights day, on earlier in the month was commemorated by the launch of an international petition (http://www.fbppn.net/?page_id=5) campaign to free political prisoners in Burma. Lead by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and the Forum for Democracy it was supported by around 170 civil society groups globally with events from Dublin to Tokyo.

Inevitably this launch and most of the publicised activism occurred outside Burma, with former prisoners and activists rallying concerned folk globally, and inevitably the notion that the petition be aimed at those who hold the key to the over 2,100 prisoners of conscience’s cells is not even considered.

The petition campaign was added weight by a landmark judgement of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention this week. It stated that not only was the detention of Burma’s most famous prisoner and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi illegal by international law but by those of her own government. Whilst such a statement may be routine from western opposition activists it is rare for the UN to make such a questioning statement about a member nation’s own laws.

The judgement hinged on the reason that Suu Kyi was in detention (already incidentally almost a year longer than her original sentence). One reason being that she would disturb the peace and ‘tranquillity of the state’, an excuse that the working group comprising of lawyers and impartial participants from Russia, Senegal and Pakistan found to be contentious. With the number of political prisoners having doubled since 2007 it is perhaps the most debilitating of issues for any chance of reconciliation or democratic progress in Burma. It castrates society of viable dialogue and leadership through internment and the fear that this breeds in those not detained. It eradicates many of the most original and inspiring voices from the nations life.

Perhaps the most vindictive of prosecutions are those given to people for helping out the victims of cyclone Nargis. Last week Min Thein Tun was sentenced to 17 years in jail for co-ordinating relief via the Internet. He will join Eint Khaing Oo, a young, award-winning journalist on the list; her ‘crime’ was the simple act of interviewing a victim.

Whilst democracy is referred to like a brand, its principles, namely freedom of speech and association are feared, by the regime, to the extent that even these actions that are not conspicuously anti government in any form are ruthlessly suppressed. The ideas and actions of the slightly humanistic or questioning are painfully at odds with the notions of politics that are held by the junta.

Despite ‘show boating’, as senior analyst and journalist Larry Jagan has called certain government PR offensives the numbers seem no sign of diminishing. In fact the incident of ‘showboating’ referred to was a release of over 6,000 prisoners. Out of that total a mere 20 odd were political, who, according to Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, had largely served lengthy sentences already. Indeed if the release of such a large number of genuine criminals is not bad enough it has been suggested that the clear out was to free up cells for incoming politicals.

If that is the case it could well be because of next years supposed election. Which is set to be a strange affair if the constitution, that it is based on, is anything to go on. It is a charter that explicitly legitimates military rule, was illegal to campaign against and was ‘voted’ in by a staggering 98% of the vote. A result that is indicative of the ridiculousness of the whole charade, as UN constitutional expert, Yash Ghai noted;

The cynicism with which the regime held the referendum and manipulated the results was on a par with the cynicism and coercion by which the draft was prepared.

Thus younger groups are also joining older generations of activists, perhaps most notable are Generation Wave. The youth group has undertaken graffiti and leafleting campaigns and amongst its members is the now detained rapper Zayar Thaw. One of the most popular musicians in Burma and founder of the band Acid, his trial for ‘dealing in foreign currency’ and belonging to an ‘illegal organisation’ saw the judges reported to the International Criminal Court. He was allowed no time in private with legal representatives and prosecution ‘witnesses’ were not cross-examined.

His music like a lot of art and expression is said, by fans in exile to be indirectly political, like much expression in Burma. His renowned lyrics serve as a rallying cry for youth starved of genuine free expression. Concerns of the regime about such expansive behaviour traverse the arts world. At roughly the same time that Zayar Thaw was receiving his sentence the government slapped a wapping 45-year sentence on comedian and renowned satirist, Zarganar. His plight was sealed by a single interview with the foreign press about cyclone Nargis. Such is the fear and revulsion the junta have of expression or divergent opinion that sentences are chosen almost arbitrarily but are prosecuted as harsh reprisals.

These decades spent behind bars by so many of Burma’s leading voices would be hard to encapsulate on this space but needless to say are years spent in some of the most frightening brutality possible. Rape, torture and intentionally fetid conditions are routine. The deprivation of food and health care is the easy first priority that authorities prescribe for political prisoners. Whilst many are put in prisons as far away from their families as possible; often their only source of decent nutrition and medicines whilst inside. The denial of health care is routine even to those suffering from conditions such as heart disease.

Within the crowded cells reading and writing is forbidden, so expression is a matter of innovation, often in order to maintain sanity especially in solitary confinement. News is read from the scraps of old newsprint used in the making of Burmese cigarettes, cheroots, for whatever can be gleaned. Communication between cells is done through painstaking versions of Morse code.

There is very little room to manoeuvre within Burma for activists, as these stories indicate and yet the immense struggle continues clandestinely in Burma and abroad. For instance this week a campaign to deface bank notes began with slogans inside Burma and joined the international petition (http://www.fbppn.net/?page_id=5) campaign and the cacophony calling for the release of political prisoners.

Indeed the current petition (http://www.fbppn.net/?page_id=5) campaign has mobilised an incredible coalition of organisations in disparate locations around the world. And not just in the traditional centres of human rights talk, it could be seen to represent a greater regional awareness and solidarity with groups from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and other countries all taking active roles in promoting and campaigning for Burmese prisoners of conscience.

And if any lesson can be learned from this it is the horror that is capable of sprouting on society and sustaining itself in the 21st century; the importance of protecting universal rights, universally. With the hope that these peoples plight does not prove a looking glass into our own future with the slide away from hard fought principles of liberty and through global concern, mobilisation and pressure those with little semblance of liberty in their lives may again walk free.

“The cry for freedom is a sign of suppression. It will not cease to ring as long as man feels himself captive”
-W. Reich

For more info or to get involved check out the web site (www.fbppn.net) or the face book group (http://www.facebook.com/editalbum.php?aid=99267&add=1&id=72207914501#/group.php?gid=17725816181&ref=mf).

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