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BURMA: Polls in View Junta Stifles All Dissent

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Nov 12 2008 (IPS) - Burma’s military rulers have renewed efforts to eliminate all opposition to their authority in the lead up to planned elections in 2010.

On Tuesday, 14 leading Burmese political activists, including five women from the ‘88 Generation’ students group, were each sentenced to 65-years in jail for their involvement in the monk-led uprising in Burma last year.

These jail terms are only the latest in a series of harsh sentences that Burmese authorities have handed down to artists, activists, bloggers, journalists and lawyers in the past few weeks.

“The Burmese 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, told IPS. “They want to silence all opposition before the planned elections in 2010,” he said.

A military-controlled court, held inside Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, sentenced the 14 student leaders to long prison sentences for involvement in the August 2007 mass protests against a hike in fuel prices and rising food costs. Most of them had been detained before the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in September that year.

The United Nations says that at least 31 people were killed when troops were sent in to end the ‘Saffron Revolt’ mass demonstrations led by columns of saffron-clad, shaven-headed Buddhist monks. The protests were the biggest challenge to the military since it seized power twenty years ago.

The 14 included Ko Jimmy and his wife, Nilar Thein, who had to abandon her four-month-old daughter when she went into hiding during the September miltary crackdown. Nilar Thein was arrested two months ago after being on the run for more than a year.

The sentences were handed down behind closed doors. Family members and lawyers were barred from the court. “Is this [65 years] all you can do?” one of the activists, Min Zeya reportedly shouted at the judge.

Nine other leaders of the group, including the top three – Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kyew – were recently sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court.

They continuously interrupted court proceedings and tried to shout down the judge, according to reports. 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.

Since the contempt of court conviction, the nine have been moved to Maubin prison in the Irrawaddy Delta, west of Rangoon – an area devasted by the cyclone in May.

“We fear they will now face harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities there, because it is more isolated and family visits much more difficult,” Burmese actvist, Khin Omar, who is based in northern town of Chiang Mai told IPS. “The conditions in prison for political prisoners are getting worse and worse,” she warned.

Many of the group’s members, who were at the forefront of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were tortured and given lengthy prison terms after the military coup 20 years ago. The activists resumed political activities after they were freed in November 2004, and have since spearheaded 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 detained oppositon leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The NLD convincingly won the 1990 elections but was never allowed to form a civilian government and 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 who deals with Burma. These sentences will leave them in prison well past the election.

The prominent labour rights activist, Su Su Nway, was sentenced to more than 12 years in jail for her political activities. She served nine months in prison more than two years ago for her work to stop forced labour. Ten members of the NLD from Bogalay in the Irrawaddy Delta were also sentenced to between eight and 24 years in prison.

“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,” Benjamin Zawacki, the Burma officer for the Britain- based human rights organisation, Amnesty International, told IPS.

Tuesday’s sentences follow the arrest ten months ago 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, Gen. Than Shwe, on his website. His trial was also held behind closed doors in the Insein prison. .

The 28-year-old blogger was a major source of accurate and detailed information on the events of August and September 2007, both inside and outside the country, according to Burmese journalists working abroad. He was given 20 years in jail.

A well-known poet, Saw Wai was also recently sentenced to two years imprisonment for “‘inciting crimes against public tranquillity”. He was arrested in January, after his poem, mocking Than Shwe, entitled “February 14” was published in the Ah Chit [Love] Journal.

The discrepancy between the sentences given to the blogger and the poet for essentially the same crime – denigrating Than Shwe – suggests that the regime is particularly worried about the opposition’s use of technology, especially the Internet.

Reports, pictures and videos that were transmitted through the Internet and mobile phones during the Saffron Revolt, and in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, apparently had the generals worried.

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

Even more worrying, before Nay Phone Latt was sentenced, his defense counsel, Aung Thein, and another lawyer Khin Maung Shein were sentenced to four months in prison, in absentia, for contempt of the court. Their only crime, Aung Thein told Burmese journalists, was attempting to defend their clients in court.

More than 15 journalists are also still in detention awaiting trial, according to the Burma Media Association. Most of them are accused of publishing material on conditions in the cyclone-devasted areas, and pointing out inadequacies in the relief effort.

“The sentencing of the 88-Group 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. “It clearly shows what we can expect in 2010,” he said.

Everyone who is opposed to the regime’s roadmap to democracy and the constitution – foisted on the people through a referendum marked by intimidation and manipulation – is being targeted.

“It’s business as usual,” said Zawacki. “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,” he said.

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