Myanmar political prisoners still fighting for their rights behind bars

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest this week highlights the plight of at least 2,200 other political prisoners who remain in jail in Myanmar, many for no crime other than indulging in the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.Myanmar’s government has used strict and vaguely worded laws to lock peaceful dissenters away for years for distributing unauthorised written materials, for forming any organisation the regime considers ‘unlawful’, or for criticising the government in any way.  Amnesty International profiles four prisoners of conscience whose combined sentences come to 229 years in prison. Despite poor health, torture, hard labour, repeated imprisonment, and being held in prisons far from their families and supporters, some have still kept fighting for their rights from behind bars.

Min Ko Naing, 48Veteran activist: 65 yearsMin Ko Naing, was arrested in August 2007, two days after leading a demonstration in Yangon against rising fuel prices.  The arrest came only three years after he finished a 15 year prison term for his leading role in Myanmar’s mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 as chair of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Unbowed by years of solitary confinement and mistreatment, on his release he threw himself back into activism and co-founded in 2005 the 88 Generation Students group, aiming to renew efforts to expand the political space in the country along with his old friends who took part in 1988’s uprising.Min Ko Naing was sentenced in November 2008, along with 22 other members of the 88 Generation, to 65 years in prison. While behind bars, he made a pact in 2007 with other imprisoned members of his group to oppose any election in Myanmar that did not involve the release of political prisoners.In the weeks after his 2007 arrest, the protests that he had helped spark erupted across Myanmar as Buddhist monks and the general public joined the largest show of street defiance since 1988 in what came to be known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’, named after the colour of monks’ robes.U Gambira, 32 ‘Saffron Revolutionary’: 63 years, currently in solitary confinementFollowing the wave of arrests of fuel price protesters in August 2007, Buddhist monk U Gambira founded the All Burma Monks Alliance to help organise and lead the ‘Saffron Revolution’ protests.  With the monks’ support, demonstrations that began as small protests against commodity prices grew in confidence and erupted nationwide, calling for political reform and the release of political prisoners.  The authorities violently cracked down on the movement in late September 2007, and U Gambira went into hiding, but continued giving interviews calling for international support and expressing solidarity with protesters.  He was finally tracked down and arrested in November 2007, and has so far been sentenced to a total of 63 years including hard labour.Despite torture and poor health, U Gambira has continued defying the authorities in prison, carrying out a Buddhist chanting protest with other inmates, and a hunger strike.  After being stripped of his monk’s robes in prison, he refused to appear in court on one occasion in the name of the dignity of Buddhism. He is now being kept in solitary confinement.

Su Su Nway, 39Forced labourer: 8 and a half years Su Su Nway was an ordinary villager who became the first person in Myanmar to successfully sue the government for subjecting her and her community to forced labour.  After imprisoning her for eight months in retaliation for her legal victory, the government freed her in 2006 under international pressure.  On her release, she proclaimed that she was keeping her prison uniform, as she knew she would be soon in jail again due to her continued commitment to highlighting the government’s poor human rights record. She was again arrested in November 2007 after putting up an anti-government banner near a hotel where the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights was staying.  She had narrowly avoided capture in August 2007 for her participation in the fuel price protests.  Despite a heart problem and poor health, while in prison she has continually shown signs of resistance, taking part in a Martyr’s Day ceremony to commemorate the assassination of Burmese independence leaders – including the father of Aung San Suu Kyi; and carrying out a hunger strike in protest at being prevented from seeing her family.  Her acts of defiance have seen her despatched to a prison far from her family and medical treatment.

U Khun Htun Oo, 67Shan political leader: 93 years with hard labourU Khun Htun Oo had been a crucial interlocutor between the military junta and the democracy movement, as one of the most senior political leaders of the Shan, the largest of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.  But after his political party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), began raising concerns about the government’s constitutional reform plan, he was arrested and convicted of treason for a dinner conversation.In 2005, he and leaders of various political groups met over a meal in Shan State to discuss the government’s National Convention, the first stage in the junta’s ‘seven-point roadmap’ for transition to civilian rule. Some ethnic minority groups were concerned about the exclusionary nature of the ‘roadmap’; the SNLD had boycotted the previous year’s convention.The group’s leaders were all arrested a month later. U Khun Htun Oo was sentenced in November 2005 to an unusually harsh 93 years prison with hard labour, despite his age and numerous health problems.  He was convicted of high treason and “inciting disaffection towards the Government” among other charges, and is being held in harsh conditions in the most isolated, northern prison in Myanmar.His continued imprisonment is likely to be a major stumbling block for any genuine dialogue on national unity between the authorities, its political critics, and representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.