Commentary: The junta's crackdown continues

Bo Kyi

Feb 1, 2008 (DVB), The fundamental challenge that the people of Burma are facing today stems from the military’s monopolization of power and its abuses against those who challenge its authority.

The Burmese military regime not only has a firm grip on the state apparatus and media but also uses them to violate the basic rights of the people. Though the country is sliding into the condition of state failure, the generals continue their exclusive political agenda and plan to consolidate their power with a new constitution.

The junta has zero tolerance of any public dissent. In 2003, the military even attempted to kill Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, an internationally known Nobel Laureate, and dashed hopes of national reconciliation. Some Burma watchers inside the country and abroad then noted that the opposition movement's strategy was losing ground and even becoming irrelevant.

However, politics were revitalized again in late 2004 after some student leaders including Min Ko Naing were released after serving long prison terms since 1989. Veteran student leaders formed the 88 Generation Students Group and launched a series of political campaigns for national reconciliation, receiving nationwide support and international recognition.

Signature campaigns, letter campaigns, White expression (wearing white clothes) campaigns and prayer campaigns were used to demonstrate the public’s hardships and call for genuine reconciliation and inclusive political transition. The nature of the movements led by student leaders became above ground and non-confrontational.

Together with National League for Democracy local members, student leaders have been engaged not only in political actions but also in humanitarian missions. They helped activists in setting up volunteer groups for wide-ranging issues such as human rights education and promotion, assisting HIV/AIDS patients, legal protection for victims of forced labor and so on. Moreover, they have established indirect relationships with local NGOs that help the public to alleviate their daily hardships. Despite the regime reacting against the accelerating movement of student leaders by beating, imprisoning and sanctioning their supporters, the momentum of public mobilization did not wane.

Then on 15 August, the junta suddenly increased fuel prices overnight by as much as 500 percent, and the hikes resulted in increases in prices of public transport and also higher prices for some basic commodities due to higher transport costs. The sharp rise in fuel prices triggered a series of small protests in the country's largest city, Rangoon. The 88 Generation Students Group led the walking protests to demonstrate against the junta’s mismanagement and call for lower consumer prices. But the plainclothes security officials and civilian paid thugs handled the protesters with brute force and physical abuse. All key leaders of 88 Generation Student Group, including Min Ko Naing, the most well-known activist after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were arrested.

When police and civilian hooligans attacked Buddhist monks in Upper Burma who joined the protest against the gasoline price hike on 5 September 2007, it sparked subsequent drama. The news of monks being tied to lampposts and beaten fuelled the public’s anger in this devout country, and fellow Buddhist monks throughout the nation called upon the regime to apologize for their wrongdoing and start national reconciliation process, threatening a religious boycott if the regime failed to comply with these demands. As the junta ignored their call, the monks carried out their boycott, refusing any religious services and donations from the military and their family members.

Thousands of Buddhist monks led the marches in several major cities of the country, chanting loving-kindness verses of the Buddhist Canon and praying for the peace of country. When students and the general public joined the marches of monks, the numbers of protesters reached 200,000 in Rangoon alone. This movement was known worldwide as the "Saffron Revolution".

However, the regime responded by spraying bullets into the monks and people, resulting in at least 31 deaths according to United Nations figures. At least 6,000 were arrested. Hundreds of monasteries were raided.

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners records show that activists have not only been beaten during arrests and whilst in detention, but have also suffered extreme physical and mental torture during the interrogation period. Even though the majority of detainees were released, 706 still remain in detention.

One of the most disturbing forms of harassment is when security forces cannot arrest specific individuals who are wanted by the authorities and so arrest family members or hosts instead. This illegal practice of "kin liability" was last practiced in Nazi Germany, where relatives of those accused of crimes against the state were held to be equally responsible and were arrested and sometimes executed.

The "Than Shwe regime" is now arresting family members of targeted people to make sure that the person they are looking for comes out of hiding and surrenders. The regime widely used this cruel method during the fall of 2007. For example, U Gambira, head of the All-Burma Monks Alliance and a leader of the September protests, was arrested in November. Before he was arrested, authorities arrested his father, U Min Lwin, and brother, Aung Kyaw Kyaw, in an attempt to force him out of hiding. At present, although his father U Min Lwin was released, his brother is still in Insein prison.

During last year, all activists were arrested without warrants. Moreover, all are placed incommunicado and faced torture or ill-treatment without access to adequate food and medical treatment. In addition, some detainees are denied access to a lawyer or legal counsel. Even when the authorities allowed some defendants to have lawyers, they could not perform their functions as a fair and balanced legal system is non-existent.

The Military Government has created several new laws and ordinances that are used as the legal foundation for incarcerating people without any arrest warrants, legal proceedings, trials and legal appeals.

The common human right to peaceful assembly has been criminalized. In many cases, activists have been imprisoned under criminal charges and sent to labor camps.

Despite the continuing arrests and inhuman detention conditions in which political prisoners are held, the international community has made little progress in addressing the oppression and suffering of the Burmese people. The visits of the UN special envoy to Burma, Mr. Gambari, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Mr. Pinheiro, failed to yield any real results. Despite promises made by the regime to Mr. Gambari to cease arrests, political activists continue to be hunted down, arrested, detained and tortured. While the international community has turned its attention to other matters, the crackdown in Burma continues.

Bo Kyi is Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

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