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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2740

Burma: A Prison State At Large?

By - Zin Linn

People of Burma were shocked by the sudden death of a 34-year old student leader Thet Wing Aung in Mandalay prison. He had played an active role in the 1988 anti-military demonstrations. Arrested in 1998, Thet Win was 'awarded' a 59-year jail term. As his health deteriorated in recent months appeals went out from all over the world from the United Nations to the Amnesty International and human rights groups to junta to spare the life of this promising young man. The Junta turned a deaf ear and according to informed sources, his end came in his cell on 16 October 2006. He had completed just eight years of his sentence by then. This very fact is by itself a telling commentary on the conditions in the Myanmar jails. Since the present regime seized power, the country has become a prison- state. A hundred and thirty political prisoners, including Members of Parliament and journalists became martyrs to the jails.

The military junta has repeatedly declined to release of political prisoners. In that sense, what it did in respect of Thet Wing Aung was not an exception. It is a part of the pattern people of Burma have become familiar with over the years. Of late, the Junta is throwing into the jail anyone speaking his or her mind on, for and about national reconciliation. Recently, on 27 September, the military arrested three prominent 1988 student leaders - Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kywe. By inquiring about their fate, two others found themselves jailed as well. They - both formerly student leaders, Min Zeya and Pyone Cho - were picked up from their homes on 30 September, a day after they wrote to the junta chairman inquiring about them status of the three student-activists. These arrests violate Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and challenges the decisions made by the UN sitting at the dialogue-table in order to settle the Burma Issue. But who cares in Rangoon for such niceties.

Any announcement made by the military regime concerning national reconciliation will continue to be meaningless unless there is political space for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD and the representatives-elect of the ethnic parties. This means the Nobel
laureate and the ethnic leaders must be released from detention and must be free to travel and communicate with members and supporters.

The Burmese people have not been allowed to participate in the nation's political processes. The junta must take the voice of the people into account in any process of political reform in Burma. At the same time, it should not discard the result of the 1990 general elections in which people made clear their desires for the future.

Today, Burma has been going through a terrible ordeal under the unrivaled military dictatorship of the century. The situation has gotten worse to worst these days. Its spill over affects - drugs, illegal migrants, refugees, human trafficking and AIDS - undermine
the regional stability in various ways. Oppression aimed at annihilating the existence of opposition parties, students and workers unions continues. Members of legal political parties are being prohibited from meeting and traveling in their own country. The goodwill expressions of the people – such as signature-campaign – are severely suppressed.

The economy is taking a direct hit of this misrule. It is not wrong to say a humanitarian crisis with food scarcity spreading across the country. Rice is the staple food of the people of Burma. With rice bags fast disappearing from the shops, the spectre of soaring prices is looming large. It is bad news for the junta and they are bound to lose sleep if the prices keep skyrocketing; The possibility of a social breakdown is also becoming real with each passing day.

Readers of "Asian Tribune" may recall that sparks that fuelled the protests against the military regime in 1988 were provided by the soaring prices of the staple food and other basic commodities. Will history repeat? Well, history has a tendency to repeat if we go by the sharply increasing rice prices across Burma these days.

A bag of low-quality rice which was about $8 early this year is now $15 and one viss (3.6 pounds) of onion, which cost the equivalent of $0.30 is now $1.50. Grocery store owners predict that prices would continue increasing as cost of transportation has gone up.

Burma faces constant fuel shortages due to limited domestic oil production and tight foreign exchange reserves. It has had a rationing system since the Ne Win era, allowing motor-vehicles owners to purchase 60 gallons per month. Vehicle owners who do not fully use their fuel sell their quotas to black-market vendors, who in turn sell it to other needy drivers.

Currently, the junta is taking measures to check price spiral. Three commodity price control committees, representing the country's three regions - the central, upper and lower parts, have been established; these are seeking ways to bring down the commodity prices. But it seems a vain attempt.

In the eighteen years since the nation-wide civil uprising in 1988, little progress has been made in the areas of democracy and human rights in Burma. The UN Special Rapporteur Prof Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has repeatedly criticized Burma's Junta, saying its political reforms are moving at snail's pace. His suggestion to the Generals: speed up change and free all political prisoners as a gesture of sincerity. The Professor's advice has no takers as of now amongst the Junta.

The Special Rapporteur in his Sept 21, 2006 report opined that impunity is one of the main underlying causes of the degrading economic and social conditions of farmers who represent the majority of the population of Myanmar. The militarization of rural areas has created a vicious circle of impoverishment of villagers. While the number of army battalions has gone up in the past 25 years, no corresponding attention was to improve by the same proportion the lot of the poor villagers and urban daily wage earners. What is more the so called self-reliance policies adopted by the local military contributed to undermine the rule of law at the expense of the livelihoods of local communities.

SPDC continued to impose severe restrictions on freedom of movement freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Special Rapporteur received several complaints that the regime was cracking down on initiatives by people to organize themselves even for non-political purposes, such as fighting against the HIV/AIDS.

Remarks Prof Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, "If the Government of Myanmar resumes, without further delay, dialogue with all political actors, including NLD and representatives of all ethnic groups to complete the drafting of the Constitution, the International Community would be in a better position to recognize the democratic legitimacy of a constitutional framework to be built on Myanmar people's aspirations."

The launching of a concerted effort among international community to free political prisoners in Burma is laudable. This issue is not only intertwined with regional politics, but it is also connected with global humanitarianism. For that reason, world leaders should consider pressuring the SPDC to free all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally. The international community, especially Japan, China, India and ASEAN, shouldn't put up with the military dictatorship in Burma any longer.

Zin Linn - The author, a former Burmese political prisoner, is a freelance journalist, and an executive member of the Burma Media Association, which is affiliated with the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers. At present he is living in exile.

- Asian Tribune -

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