BANGKOK // The jailing of 14 political activists from Myanmar yesterday is the latest in a series of jail terms the country's authorities have given to artists, activists, blog writers, journalists and lawyers in the past few weeks.
The activists, including five women, from the 88 Generation Students group have each received a 65-year jail sentence for their suspected involvement in the monk-led uprising last year, relatives say. "The junta is clearly conducting a major crackdown on all dissents in the country," said Zin Linn, a leading Myanmar dissident and former political prisoner based in Bangkok. "They want to silence all opposition before the planned elections in 2010."
Yesterday the military-controlled courts sentenced the student leaders for their support of the mass protests, known as the Saffron Revolt, that took place in Aug 2007 against increasing food and fuel prices. Most of them had been detained before the campaign against the demonstrators in September that left more than 100 dead and thousands injured. They have been held in Insein prison in Yangon. Late last month, nine leaders of the group, including the top three - Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kyew - were sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court for interrupting the court proceedings. They refused to accept the court's authority and insisted they would continue to oppose the judicial system using non-violent civil disobedience.
Since the contempt of court conviction, the nine have been moved to Maubin prison in the Irrawaddy Delta, an area that was devastated by a cyclone in May. Khin Omar, a Myanmar activist based in Chiang Mai, said: "We fear they will now face harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities there, because it is more isolated and family visits are much more difficult. "The conditions in prison for political prisoners is getting worse and worse," she said.
Analysts say the junta fears the students even more than the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 1990 elections, but was never allowed to form a civilian government. Its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spent most of the intervening years in house arrest. "They think they can handle the NLD, but they know they cannot control the students," said a western diplomat who deals with Myanmar.
Benjamin Zawacki, the Myanmar representative for Amnesty International, said: "These sentences are a clear signal that the regime will not tolerate any opposition in the lead up to the elections in 2010." Su Su Nway, a labour rights activist, has also been sentenced to more than 12 years in jail for her efforts to stop forced labour, according to a source who has access to the Insein prison where she is being held.
The current sentences come only one day after Nay Phone Latt, a young blog writer, was sentenced to more than 20 years in jail for publishing a cartoon of Gen Than Shwe, the country's top military leader. He was tried behind closed doors in an Insein prison special court. The 28-year-old owns two internet cafes in Yangon and is one of Myanmar's best known blog writers. He was arrested about 10 months ago. Another young activist arrested with him was sentenced to more than two years in prison.
Saw Wai, a poet, was also sentenced to two years in prison on Monday for "inciting crimes against public tranquillity". He was arrested in January after his poem, titled February 14, which mocks Than Shwe, was published in Ah Chit (Love) Journal. Soe Maung, Saw Wai's lawyer, said he would continue filing appeals because the trial was not free or fair. "We will continue to appeal this judgment at all levels," he said. "We intend to do as much as the law and judicial proceedings permit us to, within the legal framework, until we reach the last stage."
International human rights groups say lawyers representing opposition figures are being harassed and intimidated. Last week, Nay Phone Latt's lawyer, Aung Thein, and another lawyer, Khin Maung Shein, were sentenced in absentia to four months in prison for contempt of court. Four other lawyers, Kyaw Hoe, Maung Maung Latt, Myint Thaung and Khin Htay Kyew, have also been barred from representing their clients since last week, according to one of them, Kyaw Hoe. The lawyers were representing several dissidents, including members of the 88 Generation Students group.
"I asked a prison authority why I was not allowed to appear in court," Kyaw Hoe said. "He said there was no reason and that the order had come from higher officials." More than 15 journalists are also still in detention awaiting trial, according to the Burma Media Association. Most of them are accused of publishing material on the conditions in the cyclone-devastated area and pointing out inadequacies of the relief effort.
Those opposed to the regime's road map to democracy and its constitution appear to be the targets. "It's business as usual," Mr Zawacki said. "There is no shift in practice. They are using draconian prison sentences to warn people not to stand up to the regime, all that's changed is their rhetoric - there's no road map to political change." firstname.lastname@example.org