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The Show Trial Of The Century June 30, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, political prisoners, South East Asia.
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originally published in Tehelka

THE STORY of Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest ordeal is a tale shrouded in propaganda and censorship, besieged by one of the most draconian media environments on the planet and set in the battle for the future of a nation.

As her trial enters its second week, recriminations are entering fever pitch even as the true nature of what actually occurred and why is unclear, with little hope of truth reaching the light of day.

It all started in early May when it was reported that an American man was plucked out of the waters of Yangon’s Lake Inya in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of May. The man, 53-yearold John William Yettaw was said to be in possession of an empty water bottle, wire cutters, some US dollars and a camera.

The world came to know of the ‘swimmer’ from the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run Yangon newspaper and junta mouthpiece.

Soon, photos were leaked of the man who had been caught after reportedly swimming back from Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home. He had apparently broken into one of the most heavily guarded houses in Yangon and spent a few nights there. The photos showed an elderly man posing for self-portraits, with one showing him wearing homemade flippers.

The fuse was lit. Myanmar’s most widely known ‘celebrity’ and Nobel laureate was firmly back in the spotlight less than three weeks before her last stint of detention was due to end, on the 27th.

Though under the law against causing public disturbances under which she was incarcerated a person can be detained for 5 years without trial or release, in 2008, her detention was extended extrajudicially by a year. She would now stand trial for violating the terms of her house arrest and the Myanmar law that states that no one can have a foreigner stay overnight at their house without informing the authorities.

Rumours spread rapidly as the world only had the initial article and the leaked photos to go on. The logical jump was made with swift and knowing cynicism: no one expected the junta to release Suu Kyi let alone abide by any legal framework. The ‘swimmer’ provided the perfect storm with which to sink the democracy movement’s guiding star.

The ‘swimmer’ was described by people in his native Missouri as an earnest, intellectual father of many children and a member of the Christian Mormon sect.

Meanwhile, a palpable anger grew amongst many Myanmarese as further eyewitnesses reported that Yettaw was an overly emotional ‘extremist’ supposedly on a ‘spiritual journey’. Whilst his idiotic actions were condemned, the validity of the story was also questioned. Yettaw was said by his ex-wife to suffer from asthma. The swim to and from Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence would have been a 4½ km journey, one that would have supposedly been too much for him to handle.

Suu Kyi leaves court

If that wasn’t enough, as the trial started, an anonymous taxi driver came forward and claimed he had dropped off the American in front of Suu Kyi’s residence and seen him enter through the front gate, showing a red card to the guards at the door. Even if he had swum back, how had he been able to sidestep guards quite so easily?

Such questions sparked accusations that the entire affair had been either concocted or used to further Suu Kyi’s detention. The accusations led to a backlash of counter-claims from the junta as global leaders clamoured against the ‘kangaroo court’ trying Myanmar’s last democratically elected leader.

The regime seems convinced that the CIA are about to attack, a la Rambo movies

Harsh words from regional allies bit the hardest as Thailand, holding the alternate presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) spoke in rare open criticism of the authoritarian regime in Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital. The EU heralded the ASEAN statement as ‘remarkable’ whilst the junta greeted it as against the body’s ‘conformity’ and an affront to the ‘dignity of Thailand’.

The junta meanwhile concluded that pro democracy exiles, largely based in Thailand had concocted the ploy to ‘embarrass the government’. It is a common theme for a regime that seems in thrall to a theory, fired by Rambo films, that the CIA are about to attack. The narrative is perhaps conjured for propaganda’s sake as much as out of genuine paranoia.

The democracy movement has captured the imagination of the west as is displayed by the apparent actions of Yettaw. Like a crusade, the notion of ‘freeing Burma’ has entered the ‘evangelist’ western imagination. Aung San Suu Kyi, moreover, was married to a Briton and was educated there and in India. Her internationalist credentials are thus portrayed as unpatriotic and untrustworthy by a regime that can be characterised as xenophobic at the best of times, creating a convenient narrative that there are indeed imperialist enemies at the gate.

Meanwhile, the junta’s most ‘colourful’ spokesperson, its consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung claimed that Yettaw was Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘boyfriend’ in a spiteful attempt at a smear. Myint Aung’s last outing on the international press was noted for the open racism he displayed towards the Rohingya minority group, whom he described as ‘ugly as ogres’.

On the 14th of May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial began in the notorious Insein jail. A colonial era megalith with as many horror stories as it has rats, Insein’s prisoners are sometimes housed in colonialera kennels. Where one colonial Alsatian would have resided, three tortured political prisoners currently do.

Suu Kyi was made to testify without giving her time to consult her lawyers

With the eyes of the world straining for news of the trial of the only incarcerated Nobel Laureate, protests erupted around the world and a virtual shutdown of Yangon occurred. The high pressure was felt on all sides and the junta relented by allowing select journalists and diplomats into the courtroom for a single day every week. Little of substance has come out of the trial; Suu Kyi has said she will plead not guilty. Adding colour to the tale, Yettaw has said he visited Suu Kyi because he had visions that she would be assassinated. He claimed he had visited before last year and it emerged that he had left six books in the house, including the Book of Mormon, a burqa as a disguise and several pairs of goggles.

Last week it was announced that Suu Kyi would testify as a witness at very short notice with no time to consult her lawyers. This came after a police official announced a recalculation of how long she has been detained. He further stated that they had considered releasing her before Yettaw showed up. As usual, most statements have to be questioned.

In this atmosphere, a sense of desperation emerges. Most have concluded that the verdict has already been written, with the court proceedings apparently being rushed through. If anything has emerged, it is a game in which the regime’s culpability in foul play is hidden for the sake of its image or turned into a charade by near universal condemnation at a level that is almost unprecedented, with usually silent neighbours such as China making statements condemning the process.

The bizarre sequence of events makes Yettaw a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald of our time; his motives unclear, his methods a mystery, his culpability unknown. In all likelihood he has stumbled into a tragedy, as a naïve catalyst of oppression in the ongoing drama of Myanmar’s search for accountable governance.

Since its original publication Aung San Suu Kyi has had her defense witnesses barred from testifying, with judges rejecting all appeal to have them reinstated. Only one of her witnesses was allowed to give evidence.

The cyclone’s new victims May 28, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, political prisoners, South East Asia.
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Courtesy of the Democratic Voice of Burma

Courtesy of the Democratic Voice of Burma

Originally published on the Guardian, Cif

Rappers, journalists and comedians have discovered a new crime in Burma – helping people devastated by cyclone Nargis

This year’s Burma human rights day was commemorated by the launch of an international petition campaign to free political prisoners in Burma. Led by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and the Forum for Democracy it was supported by around 170 civil society groups 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 should be aimed at those who hold the keys to the cells of the more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience is not even considered.

The number of political prisoners – which has doubled since 2007 – is perhaps the most debilitating of issues for any chance of reconciliation or democratic progress in Burma; internment, and the fear that this breeds in those not detained, castrates society, depriving it of viable leadership and dialogue and leadership. It eradicates many of the most original and inspiring voices from the nation’s life.

Perhaps the most vindictive prosecutions are those carried out against people for helping 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.

While 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 actions that are not conspicuously anti-government in any form are ruthlessly suppressed. 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 “showboating”, as the journalist Larry Jagan calls government human rights PR, the numbers show no sign of diminishing. The “showboating” incident was a release of more than 6,000 prisoners, of whom a mere 20 or so were political – and, according to Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, these had 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 year’s supposed election. Which is set to be a strange affair, as the constitution on which it is based is a charter that explicitly legitimates military rule, is 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 the 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.”

Of the younger groups joining older generations of activists, perhaps most notable is Generation Wave. The youth group has undertaken graffiti and leafleting campaigns, and among its members is the now detained rapper, Zayar Thaw, one of the most popular musicians in Burma and founder of the band Acid. After his trial for “dealing in foreign currency” and belonging to an “illegal organisation” an attempt has been made to arraign the judges before the international criminal court. The rapper was allowed no time in private with legal representatives and prosecution “witnesses” were not cross-examined.

At roughly the same time that Zayar Thaw was receiving his sentence the government slapped a savage 45-year sentence on Zarganar, the renowned satirist. His plight was sealed by a single interview with the foreign press about cyclone Nargis.

In their decades behind bars these political prisoners will face rape and torture and be deprived of food. And many are put in prisons far from their families, who are often their only source of decent nutrition and medicines. The denial of healthcare is routine even to those suffering from conditions such as heart disease. Within the crowded cells reading and writing is forbidden, and news is gleaned from the scraps of old newsprint used in the making of Burmese cigarettes, cheroots. Communication between cells is done through painstaking versions of Morse code.

There is very little room to manoeuvre within Burma for activists, yet the immense struggle continues clandestinely – just this week a campaign to deface banknotes began with slogans inside Burma as a way of supporting the international petition calling for the release of political prisoners.

Burma’s Political Prisoner Petition March 13, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, political prisoners.
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888888A major international petition was launched today, Burma’s human rights day, by Free Burma’s Political Prisoners Now! and the Forum for Democracy in Burma . The petition aims to get 888,888 signatures by the 24th of May, the day of Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal release.

The campaign is asking Ban Ki-moon to make freeing Burma’s political prisoners a personal priority and to raise the profile of the plight of the over 2,100 people behind bars for expressing themselves.

Protesting detention of prsioners of conscience

Protesting detention of prsioners of conscience

Amongst those in jail is Min Thein Tun, sentenced this week to 17 years in jail, his ‘crime’ was co ordinating releif for Nargis victims. Perhaps the most vindictive convictions are those who are jailed for helping people in the face of a massive disaster.

The regime panicked that they might lose control of some of their power if they were not involved with every releif effort and so anybody involved in relief, not working for the government was immediately faced with persecution. With such an attitude needless to say there was little in the way of adequate support for Nargis victims from the government. Foreign aid is autmoatically funnelled towards state centred projects preventing equitable distribution and making it liable to the rampant corruption of the regime.

Ecstasy less Dangerous than Riding a Horse February 8, 2009

Posted by Joseph in civil liberties, Drug laws.
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The Chairman of the British Government’s Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Dr David Nutt has reminded us that horse riding is as, if not more hazardous than taking illegal ecstasy pills, that have a maximum penalty, like heroin and crack, of life in jail for possession. A sentence matched only by murder.

Whilst activities such as horse riding are positively encouraged regardless of hazards to oneself, the horse or the 100,000 car traffic accidents that occur annually in the UK because of the beasts.

The good doctor told the press that this ‘raises the critical question of why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use’.

Indeed a theme can be seen to be emerging, with the last post.

One anonymous source, believed to be on ecstasy pipes said that this was ‘probably because they were more fun’.

The ACMD is expected next week to call for the downgrading of the drug to a class B substance. This will not decriminalise the 500,000 people who consume the drug every weekend, but may mean we lock gurning ravers up for a slightly shorter spell in our jails.

Meanwhile the man horse love association threatened to dump a dead, drug horse outside Dr Nutt’s house.

Burma’s Misery Globalised February 3, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, Migration, South East Asia.
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originally published on Znet

Out of the pariah state into the tumult of international rejection, the story of Burma’s desperate minorities and the tyranny they flee from.

The Rohinga journey, taking to the sea, from the depths of ethnic oppression is a story that scars the 21st century and ridicules notions of progress and enlightenment, it is time Asia woke up to the vacuum of morality that lies in its midst.

The faces of desperation, the scarred, emaciated bodies that have washed up on the pristine beaches of the Andaman Sea are a rare glimpse into that darkness, a darkness that is intentionally hidden by the regime. Treated like vermin by the Thai police intercepting them, cajoled like cattle they are manoeuvred away from tourists with savage beatings. Whilst many have shown signs of burns from when they’re vessels were set alight by the Thai police.

It is said that over a thousand Rohinga people from South West Burma have arrived in Thailand and been returned from whence they came; the sea. And this month the world has shared in this tragic reaction to the humanitarian crisis these people have fled in their homeland. It is a collusion in many ways, an abrogation of morals form the perpetrating Thai authorities and an eye opening lesson in the lengths that people will go to fight for their and their families subsistence.

The reaction of the Thai authorities shames an otherwise progressive and accommodating society, but this story is one that only has one root cause, a cause that must be tackled at its root. Regional players must recognise this particularly if their security forces are prepared to knowingly commit innocents to the open waves, sending them off with beatings, little food an no engine, hoping that ‘the wind will carry them to India or somewhere’ as one Thai official noted under anonymity to the press.

The root cause however is the Burmese Junta and its oppression of its subjected people, particularly ethnic minorities. This is not simply a tale of lack of rights, freedom of expression or democracy, surrounding countries must recognise and bare witness to systematic crimes against humanity, often committed against ethic or religious minorities because of their descent. These crimes include forced labour, people trafficking, rape, extra judicial killings and heavy handedness that would make Atilla the Hun look like Ghandi, all committed by government forces with impunity.

These crimes are now also not something that can be hidden away, clouded by gas, teak and gem deals, the crimes that the Burmese people are subject to, will increasingly affect their neighbours whether or not those nations choose to have ‘non interference’ foreign policies as they naturally take the perilous choice to flee across international borders.

The crimes are committed by an organised, authoritarian military able to sustain itself on the fortunes pouring in from her ‘non interfering’ neighbours. The Shwe Gas project is a case in point. It will channel the natural wealth of this impoverished land abroad via pipeline. The gas will be extracted from the seabed by a U.S. company; Trans Ocean Inc., the exclusive purchasing rights will be owned by a Chinese one, CNPC, whilst the bulk of the project is owned by the Daewoo Company of Korea, Korea Gas corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Gas Authority of India.

If proof were further needed of the plight of Burmese minority groups, the treatment of ‘the forgotten people’, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently described the Chin people, was examined in a report of theirs. Inhabitants of an inaccessible region on the Burma India border, a border region that is racked with unrest on the Mizoram (Indian) side as it stands. The HRW report highlights the brutality and impoverishment that the Chin flee from only to be ‘unrecognised’ by the Indian government and then left to the mercy of the embattled locals or returned to the brutality. This leaves those who avoid deportation in the precarious situation that so many migrant communities do, as ‘unpeople’, pariahs forced into the hands of exploitative labour and abuse. Incidentally the deportation, by the government is a further crime under international law, stating as it does that returning migrants who they know will be mistreated, is a crime.

The Chin are persecuted for their religion, Christianity, just as the Rohingas are reviled for theirs, Islam. Religion is one plank in the systemic control that the military junta wield; violence is the main one however. For the thousands who do flee, whether because they went to the wrong meeting, ran from forced conscription or labour the trauma these memories produce will eternally remind them who is sadly still boss in their homeland.

Hell Broth Man of the Year: Muntadar al-Zeidi December 15, 2008

Posted by Joseph in civil liberties, protest, U.S. foreign policy.
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The prestigious and coveted Hell Broth ‘Man of the Year’ award has this year gone to the Baghdad ‘shoe thrower’. Whilst the site never likes to condone violence Muntadar al-Zeidi’s action is a protest that millions must have dreamed of whilst Bush’s callous blood lust and ineptitude has gone on. But also deeply regrets that neither missile hit its target.

The TV journalist also shouted that this was a ‘good bye kiss, dog!’

He now however finds himself captive of U.S. special forces in Iraq, despite Bush shrugging off the incident claiming it was something that people ‘do in a free society’. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest his arrest on no specific charges, is that something we do as well in a fee society?

“But I got wise..You’re the devil in disguise” December 12, 2008

Posted by Joseph in civil liberties, U.S. foreign policy, War.
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The U.S. Senate has finally woken up from its slumber, like George Bush after several days of a College frat party and realised that the monster of torture that was systematically unleashed  upon prisoners, guilty or not, was not the result of a few ‘bad apples’. According to the Senate Armed Services Committee it was Donald Rumsfeld, he was the ‘direct cause’ of prisoner abuse in U.S. ‘gulags’ such as Abu Graib and Guantanamo. 

The Levin report, named after its chair person Carl Levin, goes on to detail exactly what most critics, probably roundly labelled as lefty sympathisers at the time, said years ago; that torture does in fact endanger, not protect the U.S. 

The report also highlights Bush’s 2002 decision to ignore the Geneva conventions for those detained in Afghanistan, as another reason for the plague of war crimes perpetrated by the regime.

However, the report did not even look into the CIA’s use of torture in their network of no doubt extensive prisons, nor did it recommend any sought of punishment for deeds which it otherwise heavily criticises for those it deems most responsible. The taboo of seeing a U.S. official face justice seems to have bitten as usual. 

As the U.S. finally seems to have been given its marching orders in its most defining foreign escapade for a generation, with the ‘3 years till we’re free’ Iraqi deal, the truth seems to be barking at a growing rate, now that we are bereft of the hyperbole and bluster of the now impotent Neo Con ransack squad.

Innocents not Valid Targets?!! December 5, 2008

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The European Court of Human Rights yesterday struck a blow to New Labour’s data base state crusade. The ruling clearly and unanimously condemned the government’s taking and storing of hundreds of thousands of innocent peoples DNA. A practice that occurs any time anyone is unlucky enough to have to enter a police station. In the name of ‘security’ people only vaguley connected to a case are ‘just’ forced to give a ‘quick swab’ from their mouth and there entire genetic code over to her Majesty’s lovely coppers for eternity.

The judges added that on privacy and data retnetion the government had “overstepped any acceptable margin”.

This ruling comes only days after it was revealed that whilst almost a million innocent people, and large numbers of fictitious people inhabit the ‘matrix’ over 40% of convicted criminals do not.

The government has until March to respond to the court about the retention of the data….see you in Strasbourg!

If ever the fears of a few foresighted souls needed vindication it is now. If ever there were a more sobering a warning it must surely come from the fact that not a single European judge backed Labour’s authoritarian war on its own people.

Policing against the climate… September 25, 2008

Posted by Joseph in civil liberties, Climate Change, protest.
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Police close in on a 'sit in' at the gates of Kingsnorth power station

Kent police recently revealed that their activities at this years climate camp cost a cool £5.9 million and rising. This as the camp’s legal team prepares to submit evidence about a wide variety of breaches in practice by the police. Incidents included forcibly taking peoples data (illegal under stop and search regulations), violence, sexual harassment and general heavy handedness.

The outcome of any legal proceedings is not likely to get very far. Policing is usually done with impunity, from the annoyances and harassment that protesters receive to the down right heinous murders that are committed.

The incentives for the police commitment are hard to ascertain. Protecting the assets of multinationals does seem an institutional commitment up there with racism. The direct chain of command and prioritisation of this event, a peaceful environmental protest is a mystery. The fact of the matter was however, that nearly as many police attended as protesters. Protesters were further diluted in number by a large contingent of private spies hired by companies to gather intelligence and undermine legitimate protest movements by carbon intensive companies. Claims have been made that as many as 1 in 4 were in the pay of private intelligence firms; a claim made by Russell Corn of Diligence in the New Statesman.

Mussolini once famously said that fascism is achieved when there is a perfect synthesis between government and big business. Anybody witnessing the police here would have to agree that the British police are acting in consummate fashion to protect the interests of big business against the forces of democracy and people’s right to protest and express themselves.