Monday, 22 February 2010

Burma's political prosecution of dissidents undermines legitimacy of planned elections

Min Myat Kyaw [Member, Asian Human Rights Commission]: "The sentencing of four supporters of democracy party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to two years' imprisonment last week is the latest instance of how courts in Burma (Myanmar) operate under the military regime there to defeat civil and political rights, without regard to the terms of the very laws that they purport to uphold.

The imprisonment of Naw Ohn Hla and three others attracted some interest abroad partly because it coincided with a visit to Burma by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the country, Tomas Ojea Quintana. The envoy has rightly emphasized that an election scheduled for late in the year will not be taken seriously abroad unless all prisoners of conscience are freed.

But the manner in which cases of political imprisonment are conducted in Burma underscores the difficulties that the global community faces in documenting and addressing their incidence. The same week that Naw Ohn Hla was jailed, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued an appeal on new charges against Ma Sandar, who was released just last September after serving a sentence that was instigated by her complaints about corrupt councilors. The new case against her is under the same sections of law and before the same judge; the outcome too will probably be the same. The week before, the Commission issued an appeal for Dr. Wint Thu and eight others, whom Special Branch police illegally arrested and held incommunicado for nearly three months. In December a court handed them jail terms of up to 71 years for allegedly planning to commemorate the monk-led uprising of 2007. The prosecutor's evidence consisted of confessions that were extracted through police torture.

The constant movement of detainees to and from Burma's jails on charges that have little or nothing to do with the real reasons for their custody and even less to do with the standards of law that the courts pretend to enforce makes tracking their cases and understanding their mechanics a full time job. No sooner are persons like Ma Sandar or Naw Ohn Hla let out than they or others are rearrested and charged with new offences. There are no sweeps netting hundreds or thousands of dissidents that might grab headlines overseas. Nor are there any mass releases: amnesties free up space for new inmates, and typically include few political prisoners, many of whom are near to the end of their terms anyhow. Instead there is only a daily passing back and forth through the penal turnstiles. There is only the pointless inflicting of meaningless punishments on people like Naw Ohn Hla, Ma Sandar and Dr. Wint Thu, who are condemned for mundane acts that in most other parts of the world would not excite official interest, let alone attract criminal sanctions. There is only the cruel banality of a dictatorship whose institutions for political and social control are not going to go away on account of an election."

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