Polls in view, junta stifles dissent

Larry Jagan

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 said. “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.

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. More than 15 journalists are also still in detention awaiting trial. 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.”