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BURMA: Rights Group Tallies Growing Ranks of Political Prisoners

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Sep 16 2009 (IPS) - The number of political prisoners held by the ruling military junta in Burma has reached 2,200, according to a report released here by Human Rights Watch Wednesday.

It calls attention to the dramatically increasing number of political prisoners in the South East Asian country – the number has doubled in two years – who are held for participating in peaceful demonstrations in 2007 and for providing aid to civilians in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners” was released at a Capitol Hill news conference and showcases dozens of prominent political activists, Buddhist monks, labour activists, journalists and artists arrested since peaceful political protests in 2007 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in trials that failed to meet international standards.

“The Burmese junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, is intent on continuing to rule Burma with an iron fist and with complete disregard for the basic human rights of its people, maintaining its place on the list of the world’s worst human rights offenders,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer at the news conference.

“We have all seen what this military dictatorship is capable of: we have heard the stories and seen too many images of bloody crackdowns in the streets, of protestors being beaten, of prisoners being tortured, of basic necessities being denied to the Burmese people in the face of natural disaster and tragedy,” she added.

“Burma’s generals are planning elections next year that will be a sham if their opponents are in prison,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite recent conciliatory visits by U.N. and foreign officials, the military government is actually increasing the number of critics it is throwing into its squalid prisons.”

The report’s release is timed to call attention to Burma’s human rights violations in the lead up to its 2010 election and is the kickoff of HRW’s “2100 by 2010” campaign for the release of all political prisoners by 2010.

HRW says that the United States, China, India, and Burma’s neighbours in Southeast Asia should make the release of political prisoners a core tenet of their engagement with Burma’s ruling junta.

The crackdown on political opponents has been a mainstay of Than Shwe’s – the head of Myanmar’s ruling military junta – rule and political opponents are routinely locked in Burmese prisons for years.

There are over 43 prisons holding political activists in Burma and more than 50 labour camps where prisoners are subjected to harsh labour, according to the HRW report.

In August and September of 2007 oppression of those who voiced views in opposition to the ruling junta reached new levels after Buddhist monks led what was hoped by some to be the beginning of a peaceful revolution against the government.

Closed courts and unfair trials sentenced more than 300 political figures, human rights defenders, labour activists, artists, journalists, comedians, internet bloggers, and Buddhist monks and nuns to lengthy prison terms, rights groups say. Some prison terms have been for more than 100 years.

The following year, more than 20 activists were imprisoned for speaking out against the government’s resistance to permit aid to reach victims of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Most recently, the ruling junta has come under fire for its decision to prosecute Nobel Peace Laureate and opposition party leader Ang San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest for 14 years, after a U.S. intruder swam across a lake and broke into her house.

“She has done nothing wrong. She has committed no crime. She simply led her party, the National League for Democracy, to victory in a democratic election in 1990 and the Burmese junta refused to relinquish power,” said Boxer.

“Gaining the release of Suu Kyi is important not just for her own well-being, but because it could facilitate a process that allowed the opposition to fully participate in elections and Burmese society,” said Malinowski.

“But Suu Kyi is not the only person facing persecution for her political beliefs. People like the comedian Zargana, imprisoned for criticising the government’s pathetic response to Cyclone Nargis, or Su Su Nway, a brave woman activist who led street protests, also deserve the world’s attention.”

Burma has re-emerged in the news recently as its army conducted a major counterinsurgency campaign against Kokang tribal militia, an ethnic Chinese minority, several tens of thousands of whom reportedly fled over the border into China and gave rise to tensions between the military government and Beijing which has long been considered Burma’s major political and economic supporter.

Last month, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who has questioned the West’s efforts to isolate the military regime, travelled to Burma. He met Gen. Than Shwe and was given a rare audience with Ang San Suu Kyi, in a well publicised trip which resulted in the release of the U.S. citizen who swam across a lake to visit Suu Kyi.

Webb was severely criticised for the trip by human rights and Burma activists who charged that it granted legitimacy to an outlaw regime and to the election in 2010 which many observers have already decried as a sham.

“Unfortunately, (Webb’s) efforts have been damaging to our democracy movement and focus on the wrong issue – the potential for an ‘election’ that Webb wants us to consider participating in next year as part of a long term political strategy,” said the founder of Burma’s National League for Democracy Party, the primary opposition party, U Win Tin, in a Washington Post op-ed.

“But the showcase election planned by the military regime makes a mockery of the freedom sought by our people and would make military dictatorship permanent,” Tin said.

Webb defended the trip as the beginning of a meaningful dialogue with Burma’s military leadership.

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