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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.

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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.

Semantics for Authority February 28, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Obama, U.S. foreign policy.
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The most solid promise that Barack Obama made, one which apperaed incontrovertible and appealed to most humane individuals globally was the promise to withdraw all troops from Iraq.

The promise on face value means that U.S. forces will not remain in Iraq, but no sadly the U.S. President has had a change of heart or a slap on the wrist and is now only withdrawing combat troops, about 50,000 will remain in situ to among other things guard “American assets”. We obviously didn’t read the small print about the ‘non combat’ contingent of the U.S. armed forces.

If 50,000 doesn’t sound like many bare in mind that in 1880 at the height of British Colonial power Britain had only 66,000 troops in the whole of its Indian territories, a considerably larger  proposition, both in population and geographic area.

This was acheived through proxy forces, essentially mercenaries, professional soldiers who had no allegiance to the nation of the army they fought in and in a similar fashion so will the current occupation of Iraq. The thousands of mercenaries will remain and the U.S. will ultimately have a large amount of sway over the Iraqi Army. They have been asked to leave but have ignored that request and so are far from being on reciprocal, sovereign terms.

Another valid, more contemporary comparison, in the same vein of lowly semantics has been Burma’s response to international pressure to release political prisoners. They last week released over 6,000 prisoners, 20 odd were political, and those who were had largely served their sentnces.

In both situations one sees the weight of opion weighing down on cruel authorities towards their most incongruent crimes and their facetious, childish responses.