Burma Moves to Silence the Opposition

If there was ever any doubt about the Burmaese military rulers' real intentions, they have been revealed clearly with a spate of harsh sentences handed out to scores of dissidents in a clear signal that they intend to eliminate and silence anyone who opposes their authority, especially in the lead-up to planned elections in two years time.

The crackdown must also put into doubt the forthcoming planned visits to Burma by top UN officials. The UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was considering a return visit to Burma in the next two weeks, and the special rapporteur for human rights in Burma was also contemplating a fresh mission as well in the coming weeks. It may also have put paid to any prospect of the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon’s visiting after attending the ASEAN summit in Thailand in mid-December.

In what is the biggest crackdown on the opposition in Burma since the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, all activists who the regime believes pose a challenge to their control are being targeted. A series of harsh sentences have been doled out to many artists, activists, bloggers, journalists and lawyers.

More than 40 dissidents, including Buddhist monks, members of the 88 Generation Students Group, a prominent labor activist and community activists have been sentenced to jail for up to 65 years. As a result, the number of political prisoners languishing in Burma’s prisons has more than doubled in the last 12 months.

"The junta is clearly conducting a major crackdown on all dissent in the country," Zin Linn, a leading Burmese dissident and former political prisoner based in Bangkok said in an interview. "They want to silence all opposition before the planned elections in 2010."

In the latest case earlier this week, 14 leading Burmese political activists, including five women from the 88 generation group were each sentenced to 65 years for their involvement in the monk-led uprising, dubbed the Saffron Revolt, against increased fuel prices and rising food costs. Most of them had been detained before the brutal crackdown on the demonstrators in September 2007.

According to the United Nations, at least 31 people were killed when Burma's military rulers sent in troops to end the mass demonstrations led by columns of shaven-headed Buddhist monks -- the biggest challenge to military since it seized power 20 years ago. Opposition activists put the figure at more than 200 dead, however. Sveral thousand people were also arrested and are still detained, many without trial.

The 14 were convicted of various charges, including a law under which anyone who demonstrates, makes speeches or writes statements undermining government stability can be given 20 years. They were also found guilty of having links to illegal groups and violating restrictions on foreign currency, video and electronic communications.

The sentences were handed down behind closed doors – members of their families and the groups’ defence lawyers were barred from the court. “Is this [65 years] all you can do?” one of the activist, Min Zeya reportedly shouted at the judge. What is most absurd, according to human rights advocates, is that these sentences are far longer than the expected life-span of the defendants.

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Nine other leaders of the group, including the top two -- Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi -- were recently sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court. They continuously interrupted the court proceedings shouting down with the judge. They refused to accept the court’s authority and insisted they would continue to oppose the judicial system using Gandhian tactics of non-violent civil disobedience.

More than 20 members of the group, including those already found guilty of contempt, face more than a dozen other charges in the coming days. They are also likely to be given hefty sentences for their activities during the anti-government protests last year.

“The current convictions are only the tip of the iceberg,” Benjamin Zawacki, the Burma officer for the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International told Asia Sentinel. Most of them have been held for more than 12 months without trial – and in some cases without being charged, he added. “This is probably only the start of a season of trials and convictions.”

Many of the group were at the forefront of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and were tortured and given lengthy prison terms after the military coup. The activists resumed political activities after they were freed in November 2004, and have spearheaded the protests against the junta – usually focusing on the country’s deteriorating economy.

Many analysts believe that the junta fears the students even more than the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi which convincingly won the 1990 elections, but was never allowed to form a civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest in her home in Rangoon.

“They think they can handle the NLD, but they know they cannot control the students,” said a western diplomat in Bangkok who deals with Burma. These sentences will leave them in prison well past the election.

Burmese courts have also been handing out harsh sentences to other dissidents. The prominent labor rights activist, Su Su Nway, was sentenced to more than 12 years in jail for her political activities. She had already served nine months in prison some two years ago for her work to stop forced labor. Five monks from one of Rangoon’s main monasteries were each prison sentences of six years and six months.

Nine members of the NLD from Bogalay in the Irrawaddy Delta were also sentenced to eight to 24 years in prison for their involvement in the anti-fuel prices protests last year, according to an NLD spokesman, Nyan Win.

“These sentences are a clear signal to everyone that the regime will not tolerate any opposition in the lead up to the elections in 2010,” Zawacki said.

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The sentences for the 88 group came the day after the jailing of Burma’s best-known blogger, Nay Phone Latt, for more than 20 years for publishing a cartoon of the country’s top military leader, General Than Shwe on his website. His trial was also held behind closed doors in Insein prison special court. A well-known poet, Saw Wa was given two years after he published a poem mocking Than Shwe entitled "February 14" was published in the Ah Chit [Love] Journal. The first words of each line of the poem spelled out "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe".

The discrepancy between the sentences given to the blogger and the poet for essntially the same crime – belittling Than Shwe – suggests that the regime is particularly worried about the opposition’s use of technology, especially the internet. They were horrified by the reports, pictures and videos that were transmitted through the internet and mobile phones during the Saffron Revolt and the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

“They [the junta] are extremely worried about things they don’t understand and cannot control,” said Mr Zawacki. “The bloggers’s sentence reflects the greater level of threat they see in postings on the internet compared to poetry.”

In the lead-up to the election in 2010, the regime is worried about how to control the flow of information, both inside and outside the country. During the Saffron Revolt they tried to control the internet by periodically shutting down the servers, often for days at a time. They also realised that firewalls intended to prevent access to certain websites have failed miserably in Burma, as they are easily by-passed. Now they are resorting to their tried and tested tactic of generating fear.

“The message is clear, the dissemination of information and images through new technology will be severely punished,” said Mr Zawacki.

In recent weeks there has also been a spate of lawyers being convicted for contempt of court. At least five lawyers who have tried to defend these dissidents have ended up in prison – either for challenging the court on their clients’ behalf or because their clients had dismissed them because of the futility of being represented in the court when they were clearly unable to do their jobs.

“It’s complete intimidation,” Zawacki continued. “Lawyers are being punished for being the messenger. They are clearly being warned you must play by our rules and not any accepted rules of procedure.”

More than 15 journalists – reporters and photographers -- are still in dentention awaiting trial, according to the Burma Media Association. Most are accused of publishing material on the conditions in the cyclone-devasted area and pointing out inadequacies of the relief effort. Several other bloggers are also awaiting trial.

“The sentencing of the 88 activists and the further arrests in recent days -- of journalists, bloggers and forced labour complainants -- is further evidence of the extent to which conditions in this country are deteriorating in terms of basic political freedoms,” a western diplomat based in Rangoon said on condition of anonymity. “It clearly shows what we can expect in 2010.”

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But above all the junta is deliberately snubbing the UN and the international community. In recent weeks the regime has been urged to honor its promises to release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in the runup to the 2010 elections. The UN human rights rapporteur recently put forward several suggestions on how to make the election internationally credible – including the release of political prisoners and allowing the political parties to operate normally, free of harrassment and intimidation.

The regime’s clear response has been to lock up even more political activists. The number of political prisoners in Burma’s jails has more than doubled to well over 1,000, according to both the UN and Amnesty International. There are perhaps more political prisoners now than anytime since 1988, according to Amnesty International. And all this comes during a time when there is far more engagement between Burma and the international community, especially the UN, than ever before. The UN rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, visited in early August and the UN special envoy Gambari has made two visits so far thos year. Some of the highest-level UN visits have also taken place – with John Holmes (in charge of the UN’s humanitarian ope4rtions), Noleen Heyzer (head of the regional UN office ESCAP) and even the Secretary General, Ban K-moon himself visiting the country – albeit related to the UN response to the devastion wrought by Cyclone Nargis in May.

The international community can no longer cooperate with the junta on humanitarian issues related to the cyclone and turn a blind eye to the political crisis. The regime remains set in its military mentality. Burma has been under military rule of one form or another since 1962. Although the generals may have scheduled elections in 2010, as one of the final stages in its seven-step "roadmap to democracy", it is obvious that it is merely a ploy to maintain power and control over the country.

Everyone who is opposed to the roadmap and the constitution the regime forced through a referendum by intimidation and manipulation, is being targeted.

“It’s business as usual,” Zawacki said. “There is no shift in practice – they are using draconian prison sentences to warn people not to stand up to the regime, all that’s changed is their rhetoric – there’s no roadmap to political change.”