September 16, 2009

The 88 Generation Students

The most prominent opponents of military rule in Burma, after internationally known Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, are a group of former student leaders from the 1988 uprising who spent most of the years from 1989 to 2004 in prison. Soon after their release, they formed a group called the “88 Generation Students” in 2005.

The 88 Generation Students has staged some innovative and effective campaigns emphasizing non-violent resistance, calling for dialogue with the military government, and involving Burmese civil society. The group has staged prayer meetings for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners called the “Sunday White campaign,” and in 2007 started a letter writing campaign called “Open Heart” to encourage ordinary Burmese to write to President Than Shwe detailing their daily struggles and aspirations. The group said it started the campaign “to show our respect to the people who boldly asserted political, social and economic grievances such as abuses of power, human rights violations, and injustices done by the authorities.”

Thirteen members of the group involved in organizing the peaceful protests in 2007 were arrested on August 22 of that year. Most of the thirteen were held without charge for several months. Another 22 were arrested over the course of the following months.

The authorities tried to convince the total of 26 male and nine female activists in prison to endorse publicly the SPDC’s political reform process in exchange for their release. All declined and remained in prison. In the middle of 2008, the secret trials of many of the group’s members began.

By December 2008, all of the 88 Generation Students on trial had each received sentences of 65 years, with still more charges pending against them.

The charges against them include libel against foreign powers, statements causing public mischief, and unlawful association:

Laws Frequently Used Against Political Activists

  • Section 130(b) of the Penal Code: “Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, publishes anything tending to degrade, revile or to expose to hatred or contempt any Foreign State, Head of State, Ambassador or other dignitary of a Foreign State, with intent to disturb peaceful and friendly relationship between the Union of Burma and that Foreign State, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
  • Section 295(a) of the Penal Code: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons by words, either [through] spoken or written [means], or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
  • Section 505(b) of the Penal Code: “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
  • Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act: “Whoever is member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribu­tion for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operations of any such association, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term [which shall not be less two years and more than three years and shall also be liable to fine].”
  • Section 17(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act: “Whoever manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof as such members, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term [which shall not be less than three years and more than five years and shall also be liable to fine].”
  • Section 32(b) of the Television and Video Law: “Whoever commits one of the following acts shall, on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to Kyats 100,000 [approximately USD 100] or with both. In addition, the property which relate directly to the offence shall also be confiscated: (b) copying, distributing, hiring or exhibiting the video tape that has no video censor certificate and small-sized video censor certificate with the permitted serial number with the exception of cases exempted under this Law.”

Trials were held in secret inside Insein prison in Rangoon, before the 88 Generation Students were all sent to far flung prisons across Burma in late November 2008. The trials of some continued in secret at these remote prisons, while others were periodically transported back to Rangoon to resume proceedings.

Just 65 years?
—Min Zaya to the judge when his sentence was announced in court, November 2008.

88 Generation Student leader Pyone Cho is currently being held in Kawthaung Prison on the southernmost tip of Burma.

Officials sent Aung Thu to Putao prison in the far north, close to the Chinese border.

Min Zaya, was transferred to Lashio prison in Burma’s eastern Shan State.

Htay Kywe is in Buthidaung prison in western Burma’s Arakan State, and is often kept in an isolation cell.

 

Nilar Thein

Nilar Thein,age 35, is one of the most prominent women activists in Burma, one of more than 190 women in prison for their political activities. She is part of the so-called “96 Generation” of student activists who staged bold demonstrations against military rule in December 1996. She spent eight years in prison from 1996 to 2003. Just before the 2007 demonstrations began, she gave birth to her first child.

When police arrested members of the 88 Generation Students in late August 2007, Nilar Thein went underground, leaving her four-month-old daughter with relatives. In several interviews while in hiding after the August-September protests, Nilar said that her greatest concern was the arrests of her friends and colleagues, many of whom had been in prison several times before. Given their prominent activism, Nilar knew that ill-treatment was waiting for them in custody.

Now, when people they [security services] are urgently trying to find, including Htay Kywe ... and Mie Mie, are arrested like this, I am extremely concerned for their safety. I’m really sad thinking what kind of torture they must be undergoing. We, the Burmese women, interested in politics and taking part in politics, are facing violence and torture and being killed.”

Nilar Thein managed to avoid the security services hunting her for more than a year, before they arrested her on September 10, 2008, when she was trying to contact her sick mother.

I am so choked up with feeling when I had to leave my daughter with my mother-in-law. It will not be wrong to say it was the worst day of my life... [yet] I don't regret it at all. I don't because just like my daughter I see many faces of children in my country who lack a future. With that I encourage myself to continue this journey.
—Nilar Thein, interviewed by Burmese exiled media while in hiding, March 2008.

Nilar Thein was charged with the same list of 22 offenses as the 88 Generation Student activists. A court sentenced her to 65 years in prison. The authorities transferred her to Thayet prison in Magwe Division in central Burma.

Mie Mie

Mie Mie (whose real name is Ma Thin Thin Aye), age 35, is one of the most visible and outspoken activists who demonstrated in 2007. Active in anti-government activities since she was a high school student in 1989, she was arrested and imprisoned that year for several months. In 1996, her involvement in student protests provoked another arrest and prison term until 2001. A zoology graduate and mother of two children, she is one of the younger activists within the 88 Generation Students, and her husband is also an avtivist with the NLD. Following her leading role in the August 2007 demonstrations, she went into hiding in late August and authorities arrested her on October 14, 2007.

At her trial in Insein prison along with other 88 Generation Student leaders, Mie Mie received 65 years in prison.

We will never be frightened!
—The words Mie Mie allegedly yelled to judges at her sentencing in November 2008.

Her health, due to long spells in prison, has been worsening during 2008 and 2009.

Monks and Nuns

Many of the detainees convicted and sentenced in 2008 are Buddhist monks and nuns. Some had been arrested during protests on the streets, but others were rounded up during brutal nighttime raids on monasteries and religious schools in Rangoon in September and October 2007. An estimated 220 Buddhist monks are in Burmese prisons.

In late 2008, courts sentenced 46 monks and four nuns to prison, many of them with hard labor on charges including “injuring or defiling a place of worship (Section 295 of the Penal Code), insulting... either [through] spoken or written [means]... another religion” (section 295(a)) unlawful assembly, and possession of explosives, allegedly hidden in monasteries. Included in the 46 are five monks from the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery, which suffered a bloody and brutal raid by security forces looking for monk leaders on the night of September 26, 2007. The five were sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison.

The convicted nuns include Daw Ponnami, age 84, Daw Htay Yi, age 70, and Daw Pyinyar Theingyi, age 64, from Rangoon’s Thitsa Tharaphu School, all of them sentenced to four years hard labor. When the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar visited Insein prison in February 2009, he reported that Daw Ponnami “did not know the reason for her arrest [and] was frail and had difficulty in standing and walking.” After one-and-a-half years in prison, the 84-year-old nun was released in March 2009.

Also tried were senior abbots of the Artharwaddy Monastic School, such as 65-year-old U Yevada. Security forcesbrutally raided hisschool searching for activist monks on the night of September 26, 2007. Seven monks and nuns from the monastic school were charged with defiling a place of worship and insulting another religion (Sections 295 and 295(a) of the Penal Code).

In 2008 courts sentenced:

U Kaylartha, a monk from Mandalay, to 35 years in prison.

U Sandar Wara toeight-and-a-half years in prison.

U Thaddama, a young monk from Garna Puli monastery, to 19 years in prison.

Abbot U San Dimar of Kyar Monastery in Rangoon’s Pazundaung township, to eight years in prison under the Unlawful Association Act. He still faces charges under the Explosives Act.

U Ahnanda, a 62-year-old monk arrested in January 2008, to four-and-a-half years in prison in October 2008. He died of a stroke in Insein prison on January 22, 2009. Fifteen other monks and nuns imprisoned alongside him are suffering from malnutrition due to insufficient rations, and the prison authorities refuse to allow family members to visit them.

Journalists, Bloggers, and Artists

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there are now 14 Burmese journalists in prison for their activities. A number have been arrested and convicted of crimes related to their coverage of the 2007 crackdown and the May 2008 cyclone.

Those imprisoned include well-known journalists Thet Zin and Sein Win Aung, both arrested on February 18, 2008, and charged with possessing what were deemed unlawful items, including video footage of the 2007 crackdown and a copy of the report on the 2007 crackdown by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. On November 28, 2008, a different court sentenced the two to seven years in prison.

Journalists imprisoned for reporting on the cyclone, or simply sending information or footage regarding the cyclone to foreign media outlets, include Aung Kyaw San, Kyaw Kyaw Thant, and Eine Khin Oo.

Zaw Thet Htwe was helping Zargana provide cyclone relief supplies but was arrested for compiling information on the government’s slow response and the magnitude of the devastation. A court sentenced him to 19 years in prison. Zaw Thet Htwe is a prominent journalist critical of the government who ran the popular First Eleven sports newspaper. In 2003, a court had sentenced him to death for exposing a story on a corruption in football (soccer) funding involving government officials, but he had been released in 2004 following an international outcry.

Blogger Nay Phone Latt, age 28,rose to fame during the 2007 crackdown when his website became pivotal in providing information both inside Burma and to the outside world. In January 2008, police arrested him alongside fellow blogger Thin July Kyaw. They were eventually charged with using electronic transactions technology to harm national security or aid the commission of such offense (sections 33 (a) and 38 of the Electronic Transactions Law), unlawful distribution of videotapes (section 32(b) and section 36 of the Television and Video Law), and making statements causing public mischief (section 505(b) of the Penal Code). In November 2008, a court sentenced Nay Phone Latt to 20 years in prison and transferred him to Kawthaung prison on the southern-most tip of Burma.

Popular musicians and artists have not escaped arrest and heavy sentences. In November 2008, a court sentenced famous rapper Win Maw of the Shwe Thanzin (Golden Melody) band to seven years in prison for videotaping the 2007 demonstrations and then distributing CDs of government brutality. On March 5, 2009, his sentence was extended by another ten years to 17 years in total. In November 2008, hip hop star Zay Yar Thaw, a member of “Generation Wave,” was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for attending a birthday party for Aung San Suu Kyi, in her absence, at NLD party headquarters on June 19, 2008. Generation Wave was formed by young Burmese activists following the 2007 crackdown, and includes hip hop artists such as Zay Yar Thaw, and young activists such as Arkar Bo, Aung Zay Phyo, Thiha Win Tin, Yan Naing Thu, and Wai Lwin Phyo.

Poets Saw Wai and Min Han were also sentenced in November 2008: Saw Wai received two years in prison for publishing a poem critical of President Than Shwe early in 2008, while Min Han received 11 years in prison for a range of charges related to comments he made criticizing the military government.

NLD activists

For years the military government has targeted members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi which won national elections in 1990 (the first that had been held since 1960) by a landslide. Intimidation, duress, and threats by the authorities have forced thousands of party members to resign, and more than 450 are in prison. Tactics of coercion ranging from spurious legal action to direct military orders have shut down scores of NLD offices throughout the country.

In the last few years, the NLD youth wing has been most visible—comprised of bold and innovative activists who often work in conjunction with other emerging groups such as the 88 Generation Students and Generation Wave.

Courts sentenced an estimated 90 members of the NLD in late 2008 for their activities in 2007 and 2008. Eleven are members of the youth wing who were charged regarding their involvement in a small demonstration on May 15, 2007 in Rangoon, calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. Authorities charged them with instigating public unrest among other charges. The judge charged the 11 accused and their two lawyers with contempt of court because some of the defendants literally turned their backs on the judge to protest the unfair way the defendants were being questioned by the prosecution. All 11 NLD members were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

Six other members of the NLD from Kyauktada township arrested during the 2007 crackdown received lengthy sentences: Kyi Kyi War, 11 years; Kyaw Zin Win, 16 years; Kyaw Kyaw Lin, 10 years; Aung Kyaw Oo, 5 years; Nay Zar Myo Win, 5 years; and Kyin Hlaing, 4 years.

Win Mya Mya, a prominent NLD activist from Mandalay and a survivor of the 2003 Depayin attack, was sentenced in October 2008 to twelve years in prison for her activities during the September 2007 demonstrations. She was transferred to the isolated Putao prison in far north Burma in March 2009. She managed to tell her brother before she left, “I am being sent to where I deserve for my works. You live one day, you die one day. I don’t care if they send me to the moon.”

In February 2009, two NLD members elected to parliament during the 1990 elections were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Nyi Bu and Tin Min Htut were arrested in August 2008 after releasing a letter criticizing the SPDC’s political reforms. They were sentenced following a secret trial in Insein prison which their family members and legal representatives were not permitted to attend.

Human Rights and Defenders Network

The Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network (HRDP) promotes citizen’s rights in Burma by providing public seminars and trainings on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and doing human rights documentation work. Its grassroots activities have attracted the attention of the authorities for the past several years. In April 2007, two of its members were brutally attacked by government-backed USDA thugs as they conducted trainings for villagers on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in rural areas near Rangoon.

U Myint Aye, a founder of the group, has been active in dissident politics since the 1974 demonstrations in Burma. Authorities arrested him on August 8, 2008, when he was staging a solo protest at his home commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1988 uprising. Along with four of his colleagues from the HRDP, he is charged with bombing the office of a USDA building in Rangoon in 2008. An estimated 43 members of the group are in prison.

The 2007 demonstrations and the cyclone response brought many different people together, young and old, who spoke out against government actions. Police arrested 25-year-old law student Honey Oo, a member of the banned All Burma Federation of Students Union in early October 2007 for organizing demonstrations. She received nine-and-a-half years in prison.

U Ohn Than, age 61, a former government employee, has been staging solo protests against government policies since 1988 when he is not in prison. He was in prison from 1988 to 1995, and upon his release resumed solo protests. In 1996, the authorities rearrested him and held him in various prisons until 2003. From then until 2007, he was arrested several times for his stoic one-man protests against political repression and rising commodity prices. He would stand outside United Nations offices, government buildings, and opposition political offices, making his case, mostly in silent defiance until officials dragged him away.

On August 23, 2007, U Ohn Than stood outside the US embassy in Rangoon wearing a prison uniform and holding a large placard calling for international assistance and national reforms in Burma, as well as criticizing military rule and China’s and Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Burma in January 2007. As embassy officials looked on, plainclothes security agents bundled him into a van and took him to a police station.

A court sentenced him on April 2, 2008, to life imprisonment for sedition under section 124(a) of the Penal Code. U Ohn Than is now suffering from cerebral malaria, but has refused all medical assistance from prison authorities and his family. His daughter managed to visit Hkamti prison, Sagaing Division, but he refused to take any medicine.

Form a Government that Represents the People Listen and Act On What People Want End Military Ruling, Now China and Russia's Vetoes—Go To Hell!
—Slogans on some of the placards U Ohn Than held outside the US embassy in Rangoon, August 23, 2007, just before his arrest by plainclothes police.

Lawyers

In a new twist on the SPDC’s broad sweep against peaceful political activists in Burma, the military government has begun targeting activists’ lawyers. In October 2008, a judge charged Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min and Nyi Nyi Htwe, two of the lawyers representing the 11 NLD activists (see above NLD), with contempt of court because they would not instruct their clients to turn and face the judge. Both were sentenced to six months in prison. Days later, two more lawyers, U Aung Thein and U Khin Maung Shein, asked to withdraw their representation because the trials were unfair and they could not do their jobs properly. The judge charged them with contempt and sentenced them to four-to-six months in prison.

Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min learned of the charges in advance and went underground. He arrived in Thailand in mid-December 2008. Nyi Nyi Htwe was released from prison in April 2009.

In late January 2009, the SPDC issued arrest warrants for six more lawyers representing NLD activists. Currently, 11 lawyers are in prison for their attempts to assist their clients.