Activists mark second vote behind bars

Forty-five political prisoners who were behind bars during Burma’s last elections two decades ago look likely to spend 7 November in jail as the country once again goes to the polls.

A list of their names, which includes democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was recently published by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), based in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border. Many of the captives have been in jail for each of the 20 years since the 1990 elections, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory which was ignored by the junta.

Since then, Suu Kyi has spent at least 15 of the last 20 years under house arrest in Rangoon. Her latest sentence began in August 2009 after she was convicted of violating the terms of her house arrest for allowing an American man to stay at her home for two days. She is scheduled to be released on 13 November.

Also on the AAPP list is Min Ko Naing, who received a 20-year sentence in 1989 for his role leading the 1988 student uprising against military rule. He was released in 2004 after being tortured and spending years in solitary confinement, but continued his political activities.

In August 2007 the student leader was arrested for starting the protests which eventually led to the monks’ uprising, commonly known as the Saffron Revolution. Today he is in solitary confinement in Kengtung prison after receiving a 65-year sentence in November 2008.

Burmese comedian Zarganar also spent the 1990 polls in jail for making political speeches that angered the junta. His release failed to silence him, and he is now serving a 35-year sentence for criticising the government’s handling of the 2008 cyclone Nargis disaster.

The 45 prisoners on the AAPP list are among some 2,200 political prisoners currently jailed in Burma. The Burmese government has so far ignored widespread calls by the international community to release the prisoners before Sunday’s elections.

Last week UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the junta to release the captives before the polls. Otherwise, said Ban, “there may certainly be some issue of legitimacy or credibility”. With just two days to go, their release looks unlikely.

The junta “clearly isn’t taking any chances”, said Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International. The government had learned from its defeat at the polls in 1990 and its success in getting the 2008 constitution approved overwhelmingly in the devastating aftermath of cyclone Nargis, he said.

The continuing incarceration of political activists undermined the suggestion that the government had complete control over Burma, he said. “Clearly its calculation is that releasing these people prior to the elections…is too great a risk.”

Amnesty International did not expect to see much change in the political prisoner population following Sunday’s polls, Zawacki said. He added that an exception might be made for Suu Kyi, whose term of house arrest is “globally known” to end next week.

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