Myanmar: Long prison terms for dissidents

This was not a good week for Myanmar’s democracy movement. During the past week, more than 60 people were sentenced to many years of imprisonment for participating in activities deemed subversive by the ruling Junta.

On Monday a popular blogger and young entrepreneur was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for keeping defaced images of national leaders in his email inbox.

On Tuesday about 39 activists, including five monks, and 14 members of 88 Generation Students group, were handed prison terms of up to 65 years. The 88 Generation Students group is a loose grouping of Myanmar's most prominent human rights activists Last August 2007, the group organized a non-violent protest walk against high oil prices. The protest was successful. Hundreds of ordinary Burmese people joined the protest. The 88 students group members were immediately arrested by the Junta.

On Thursday 19 dissidents were sentenced to up to eleven years imprisonment on charges of “disturbing public order, resisting officials on duty and illegal assembly.” The defendants included 11 members of the opposition party National League for Democracy.

The prison list is expanding. Some of the prisoners have been transferred to remote jails. Rule of lords cites some of the cases of the detained activists:

Saw Wai – A poet was sentenced to two years for “upsetting public tranquility.” His crime: He wrote a concealed anti-dictator message into a Valentine’s Day poem.

Ma Su Su New – He was sentenced to 12 years and six months for leading the protests against the government last year.

Bo Bo Win Naing – He got eight years for joining the protests.

Win Maw – A musician who got six years “for sending false news abroad, even though it wasn’t false, and there wasn’t any evidence against him to correspond with the elements of the charge.”

A young female journalist from Econ Vision Weekly Journal has been sentenced to two years in jail for covering the Nargis cyclone news.

What is the motive of the Junta for handing out these ridiculously long sentences? Khun Tun explains:

“These are brutal shock tactics. Clearly the junta is determined to ensure that the elections it plans for 2010 as part of its roadmap to democracy suffer no disruption and that the population will be sufficiently cowed not to repeat what happened in 1990. That was when it organized multi-party elections but refused to honor the results after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won an overwhelming victory.”

Clearly, the aim of the Junta was to intimidate dissident groups and warn the people that if they join the protest actions or write something that embarrasses the Junta, they may face a jail term of up to 65 years.

Blogger sentenced to 20 years

Popular blogger Nay Phone Latt was given a sentence of 20 years and six months “for having defaced images of national leaders, writings and cartoons in his email inbox, and for having had contact with other people involved in the protests.”

But Nay Phone Latt is not a political blogger. He owns several internet shops. The Junta may be sending a strong message to other internet shop owners about the need to cooperate with the government. Since January, the Junta has increased its surveillance of the internet:

“The Burmese authorities have stepped up their surveillance of the Internet since the start of January, reportedly pressuring Internet café owners to register the personal details (name, address and so on) of all users and to program (and save) screen captures every five minutes on each computer. All this data is apparently then sent to the communication ministry.”

Melody clarifies that her friend, Nay Phone Latt, is not very political.

“He is only an artist/author who did write poems, articles about his opinions and ideas without interference through his blog. We just know him as ordinary youth but he has been to be NLD youth member once. And he never persuaded any bloggers about politics. This electronic act is really really unfair treatment upon youth and all Myanmar people who are in IT field.”

She is referring to the 12-year-old law which was used to justify the government’s case against the blogger. The 1996 Computer Science Development Law contains provisions that are so broad that any internet activity can be deemed illegal. New Mandala highlights these provisions:

“The first article of Chapter XII, Offences and Penalties, reads as follows:

33. Whoever commits any of the following acts by using electronic transactions technology shall, on conviction be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend from a minimum of 7 years to a maximum of 15 years and may also be liable to a fine:

(a) doing any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.

(b) receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.

Clearly, just about anything could be a violation of this section. If you’re one of the estimated 300,000 people in Myanmar who now goes within reaching distance of a computer with an online connection, then you can be found guilty of something.”

The Irrawaddy quotes a lawyer who believes that the new law was invoked instead of the usual Section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act so that the Junta can tell the international community that Myanmar has no political prisoners in the jails, only criminals.

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