Below The Lady and the Military

A tribute to the Burmese political prisoners

Once at an informal gathering, a professor told us that it would be naïve for Aung San Suu Kyi if she never made any remark about the crisis of democracy and human rights in Manipur—her neighbour which also shares a long history of both fraternity and enmity. The professor was speaking in the context of her idealism on democracy that she has been fighting for almost four decades under the military junta in Burma. He was persuasive then, if we also see that The Lady is a Nobel laureate and a global icon of democracy; while for us, in the name of living in the world’s largest democracy we have to fight even for the basic right to life.

‘I started as a politician not a human rights defender.’
Image:  Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

However, over the months after that gathering, the professor’s words have become just a sort of our disillusionment with the tyranny of our lives, which has nothing to do with anyone influential or not; more or less so—because it is all about bloody politics.

The reason for my change of heart is because of the fact that the conditions in Burma are, for the lack of a better term, hellish. It is understandable for any Manipuri how a harsh reality can make a zombie out of us. On other occasions, Daw Suu has been facing criticism for instance, most recently over her stance, or silence, on the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya Muslims, though she claims that everyone is suffering under the dictatorial regime (March 2016). Three years ago, The Guardian slammed her over the same matter with a long screaming headline: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi is turning a blind eye to human rights in the name of politics’.

Nothing has deterred my moral support for The Lady, for reasons good or bad as she is just a character in the farce called Burma. What bothers me is the whole system of rulers who are as ruthless as shit and the ruled who are putting up with the craps. I believe that the sort of Milgram Experiment will be unable to put it in plain words about the cruel comedy of politics in this country, which is one of the most impoverished in the world. The BBC History Magazine explains the phenomenon:

...Burma’s military dictatorship is different [from others] for four historical reasons—a strong military tradition, a relatively weak civil society, a long-standing fear of national disintegration and an equally long-standing fear of foreign intervention. Unlike most Asian and African countries, Burma did not win its independence by conventional civilian-based political agitation. Modern Burma was born partly out of an Allied military struggle against Japanese occupation—a struggle which, by 1945, also involved Burmese forces led by the leaders of what became the country’s post-independence army. (Two paragraphs have been combined for convenience. Source: HistoryExtra, BBC History Magazine

My first-hand experience with this country is from just half-a-dozen pleasure trips to Moreh, a Manipuri trade town. It takes only three hours from Imphal valley eastward to reach this town that borders Tamu district in the Sagaing Region of western Burma. The trips had been apolitical but it did get me physically nearer to a country that is so close to us historically, culturally and geographically, but psychologically, it is as remote as Latvia or Madagascar. From others, the scarce information has been only from news sites like Mizzima, the Myanmar Times and The Irrawaddy; from the history of Manipur; and from assorted sources such as movies, books, cultural mores and anecdotes. Manipur University has the Centre for Myanmar Studies that offers certificate courses; perhaps it can help shed more light!

For reason’s sake, we can attribute the detachment to our terrible transportation infrastructure and the Burmese political way of life, which is marked by extreme seclusion much thanks to its visionary military leaders. In addition to impoverishment, Burma is also one of the world’s most isolated countries that include, amongst other, North Korea, Somalia and Timor-Leste.

Officially, the name of the country was changed to Myanmar in 1989 but it is imprudent to recognise the authority of the military that amended it. So I prefer to use ‘Burma’ though etymologically the two names are synonymous and variants of the same term. It is a dilemma though that the process of Burmisation is taking a heavy toll on the other ethnic groups. The country is home to 135 such officially recognised, with the Barmar as the dominant group comprising nearly 70% of the population out of the total 51,486,253 in 2014, according to the Department of Population Ministry of Immigration and Population.

Image: The Cambodia Herald

In its most recent history, when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, more than 150,000 people lost their lives. According to Human Rights Watch, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) that has ruled the country since 1962 ‘tried to tell the world that Burmese people “are not beggars”, and therefore did not need handouts’ despite the widespread destruction of life and property.

In June 2008...Human Rights Watch believes that 22 people were arrested for activities related to assisting victims of the cyclone, in many cases because they reached out to the international community or publicly criticised the SPDC’s performance. The most prominent of these is renowned Burmese comedian and activist Zargana...

Zargana (b. 1961), whose real name is Maung Thura, began his career as a dentist and hence the nickname that means ‘pliers’ or ‘tweezers’.  He has been one of the most recognisable faces in Burmese entertainment industry but he is more than an artist. As much as his satire has tickled the ribs of countless Burmese people, his puns have been quite a blow to the military that Zargana had to bite the bullet many a times; and unsurprisingly, the number of times he has been imprisoned is no less than the number of his shows.

So, in 2008, he was arrested for giving ‘interviews to foreign news outlets in which he reminded the international community about the continuing desperate state of cyclone-affected communities and the poor government response’. The evidence used against him included DVDs of Rambo IV! His unfavourable tryst with the authority had begun a long time back in the aftermath of the popular 8888 Uprising, in which 10,000 people died in the police crackdown on the protesters.

Zargana is just one of the numerous political prisoners, who have been at the receiving end of the Burmese establishment for demanding political reforms in Burma. Despite all the beastly treatment he had to endure, he is lucky that he now a free man. He was released in 2011 in an amnesty of political prisoners. However, if we go by records and his relatively young age, nobody knows when the authority would find an excuse to dump him in a prison again, particularly considering his vocal anti-military views.

“Every country has a success story to tell. Some like to boast about a citizen with no hands who can still write, or another with no legs who can still run. But there is no other country like Burma. Here we have generals able to rule a country for 40 years with no brains!” — Zargana

In January 2016, the Burmese military released 52 political prisoners but that is just the tip of the iceberg. According to information released by Human Right Watch (Burma: Growing Political Prisoner Population):

  • More than 50 Burmese students [appeared] in court in Tharawaddy, Pegu Region on January 19, 2016, after being arrested in March 2015 following the police’s violent crackdown on their protest over the National Education Bill. They are charged under several provisions of the Penal Code for rioting and abuse of officials; no police officers have been charged for unnecessary or excessive use of force. Authorities have brought the students to court more than 30 times since their arrest. The group includes prominent student leaders Honey Oo and Phyo Phyo Aung, both of whom were imprisoned previously for peaceful political activities.

  • Social worker Patrick Kum Jaa Lee who has been charged under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for defamation connected to a Facebook post in October that allegedly mocked the military. He remains jailed without bail despite his declining health. Youth activist Chaw Hsandi Tun was sentenced in December to six months in prison for a Facebook post from October comparing the color of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s skirt with the uniform of the military commander in chief.

  • Interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Ma Pwint Phyu Latt from the Mandalay Interfaith Social Volunteer Youth Group were arrested in July 2015 and charged with offenses under article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act as well as immigration offenses for visits they made to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in 2013. Both face a prolonged trial, and many local activists believe the authorities are prosecuting them because of their efforts to promote religious tolerance among all religions in Mandalay.

  • Writer and former National League for Democracy (NLD) information officer Htin Lin Oo was sentenced to two years hard labour in June 2015 for allegedly insulting religion in a speech at a literary event in which he called for religion not to be tainted by politics. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, allegedly urged local officials to file charges against Htin Lin Oo. Three others were sentenced to two years hard labor in late 2014 on the same charges of insulting religion after posting an image of Buddha wearing headphones to a Facebook event page, which was deemed to demean the image of the Buddha.

  • Several journalists including the chief executive officer of the now defunct Unity news journal, Tint San, and four of his reporters, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Lu Maw Naing, and Sithu Soe, were sentenced in 2014 to 10 years for disclosing state secrets and trespassing as a result of a story Unity ran alleging the Burmese military was manufacturing chemical weapons. Their sentence has since been reduced to seven years.

From the data collected by Amnesty International, the prisoners include another set:

•    56 students or their supporters
•    13 community-based, labour and political activists
•    6 people in detention following pressure by Buddhist radical groups
•    6 people who mocked the military on Facebook
•    5 media workers
•    2 ‘solo protesters’

For further details, you can look up these organisations:

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)
Human Rights Watch on Burma
Amnesty International on Burma
Burma Campaign UK for Human Rights, Democracy and Development in Burma

Political repression is just one part of the multi-layered problems plaguing Burma. It is in the news for all the wrong reasons all the time. Besides the brutality of the military and human rights issues, the country is infested with the problems of, amongst others, armed movements, suppression of women, drug production and addiction, underdevelopment and poverty, genocides, extreme oppression and communal violence.

The hope for democracy is all apparent with the election held in November 2015 in which the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory just like in 1990; but it will be just a beginning of the new Burmese history. Better late than never. To start afresh, freeing the political prisoners can be, for a change, a welcome move. And Aung San Suu Kyi, she can learn a thing or two from Subcommandante Marcos, the Mexican rebel who considers himself a sub and that the real commandante is the people and he is no lesser political. Power to the people!

From the 8888 Uprising
Image Source: Burma Watch International



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