jump to navigation

The cyclone’s new victims May 28, 2009

Posted by Joseph in Burma, civil liberties, political prisoners, South East Asia.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment
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.