Dictatorships are not known for their sense of humour, nor do they appreciate being laughed at. It came as no surprise then when the ruling military regime in Burma recently sentenced the country’s best known comedian, named Zarganar, to 59 years in prison.

Zarganar (which means pliers in Burmese — he was a practising dentist) was arrested in June for staging private relief operations for survivors of Burma’s devastating cyclone in May, and for speaking out about the poor response by the authorities. These efforts, and his unique blend of sardonic wit and absurd reflections about the crushing repression of the military government, landed him in prison for his third stretch in the past 15 years.

Zarganar’s sentencing is part of an astonishingly brutal campaign by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in Burma to eradicate all political opposition in the country ahead of planned elections in 2010. In recent months, hundreds of prominent activists, Buddhist monks and nuns, journalists, labour activists, bloggers and hip-hop artists have
been sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Some of them are facing between 100 and 150 years back in prison, many for their third or fourth times. Even some of the lawyers representing these activists have been imprisoned, for speaking out about the grossly unfair secret trials held in jail or in closed courthouses.

The activists include a brave labour rights representative named Ma Su Su Nyay, who was handed more than 12 years, and Min Ko Naing, the leader of Burma’s 1988 student-led uprising who has already received more than 65 years just on a few charges; his sentencing will probably land him 150 years back in jail, where he spent most of the time between 1988 to 2004 in solitary confinement. Both of them have been past recipients of Canada’s John Humphrey Freedom Award.

The past several months have constituted Phase Two of the SPDC’s crackdown on peaceful dissent, following on from August and September, 2007, when many of the activists were arrested for their parts in protests against military rule, which saw thousands of Buddhist monks march through the streets to carve out space for larger demonstrations. When the SPDC finally cracked down, dozens of people were killed and thousands were arrested, Zarganar included. He was held in a tiny cell, and when finally released cracked jokes about police dogs and which parts of his anatomy they tried to bite off. Grim humour.

The SPDC has been sentencing these activists for two reasons. The first is to decapitate any possibility of challenge to a tightly scripted and controlled political reform process, by locking away the leadership and spiritual and artistic supporters of resistance to military rule. The second is to instill fear in an already fearful and beaten down population; by targeting a cross-section of Burma’s resurgent civil society, the regime is stating clearly that resistance is futile.

Future military rule with a civilian façade is the end goal, and Burma’s recently released constitution ensures just that. The planned elections had their prelude in a ruthlessly orchestrated referendum just a week after the cyclone, conducted while the SPDC was blocking urgently needed international assistance. The result? A 98% voter turnout and 92% approval, laughably improbable even by Burma’s low standards.

As this despicable process proceeds, the world has shrugged its shoulders in exasperation. The United Nations’ muted response to the sentencing rounds is in contrast to the outrage the world expressed after the 2007 demonstrations were met with violence. The UN’s efforts at mediation inside Burma are, unfortunately, in tatters. That diplomatic solutions have been elusive is clear: The West and Asia have been at loggerheads over divergent approaches to Burma for years; both quiet persuasion and
business investments, over loud human rights moralizing and sanctions, have been equally ineffective in shifting this implacable and shady regime. As China’s heavy investments show, especially recently announced plans to build two massive oil and gas pipelines through Burma into Yunnan, the SPDC is content to maintain control over a resentful population as long as they can survive on the proceeds of natural resource sales and the diplomatic cover provided by China, Russia, India and Burma’s Southeast Asian neighbours.

The world must speak out, now more than ever, to deny legitimacy to a military reform process that mocks the very idea of democracy and fundamental freedoms. The regime thrives on frustration and lack of attention, happily repressing its people in quiet. If we do not loudly and strongly condemn this draconian process, hundreds of Burma’s leading thinkers and performers will disappear into the country’s squalid gulag, and the ephemeral promise of a liberal and free Burma could well be lost to another generation.

David Scott Mathieson is Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch.