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Under the Yoke of Oppression

Under the Yoke of Oppression



Copyright : Rajeshree Sisodia

Um Phien Refugee Camp in Thailand, one of nine officil refugee camps for Burmese refugees in Thailand.(Photo by Rajeshree Sisodia)

By Rajeshree Sisodia
British Freelance Reporter
Tuesday, 16 June 2009 15:11


For three days, Htay Aung was blindfolded, and repeatedly forced to crouch low, balance on the balls of his feet and place his hands behind his neck in an interrogation cell. Then the questions would start.

"Why did you get involved in political activities?", "What were you doing?", "Who else is helping you?", his tormentors at a Military Intelligence (MI) interrogation camp in Myanmar's former capital Yangon would demand.

He gave the wrong answer, replying, "which students have you arrested?" Then the blows rained down on him, as MI officers beat him with aluminum and rubber truncheons on his calves and back.

He replicates the position he was forced to stand in 20 years ago as he remembers how he dared to defy the military regime as a student leader in the country's 1988 mass pro-democracy uprisings, when millions of unarmed protestors demonstrated to demand democracy and economic reform.

"I fell down a few times when I was forced to stand in that position. They would not let me sleep, eat, or drink water. It was like that for three days. For the first two days, they would not let me go to the toilet, the 45-year-old says. I never told them who I was helping on the outside. That time, they did not torture me too much," he continues.

Systematic Human Rights Violations

The country's recent history reads like a glossary of human rights abuses.

After three days of beatings and interrogation, Htay Aung was transferred to Insein prison, the largest of Myanmar's jails in Yangon. Then one day, after spending two months in a windowless cell where his toilet was a hole in the ground, he was released without explanation and without a trial.

The beatings and detention had little effect. If anything, Htay Aung's resolve to protest against Myanmar's military dictatorship grew and after his release he continued to work for the underground movement the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), a nationwide student group that spearheaded the 1988 uprisings.

It was a conviction that would cost him more than a decade in prison after he was re-arrested three times; first in 1990 and twice in 1996.

Htay Aung, 45, a former political prisoner in Myanmar who fled to exile in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in November 2008. (Photo by Rajeshree Sisodia)

"We did not want to be beaten or to be arrested or to die. It is normal to feel fear. I felt afraid [but] some of our friends were missing, some arrested, and some were beaten," he says.

"At that time, we knew that if our country had democracy, these horrible things would not happen, so we wanted that. I hated the regime," he continues.

His determination to fight for democracy brought him under the scrutiny of the MI again in 2007. It was after that — fearing re-arrest, he fled Myanmar last November [2008] and crossed illegally into Thailand. It was a self-enforced exile that led him to his new home in the town of Mae Sot, on Thailand's western border with Myanmar.

Htay Aung was one of the lucky few as he managed to escape. The continued detention and on-going trial of Myanmar's most famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and leader of Myanmar's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has helped train the world's gaze onto thousands of other dissidents currently in jail in Myanmar.

The number — which currently stands at 2,156 — is the highest number of long-standing political prisoners the country has seen since at least 1988, according to Amnesty International.

The story Htay Aung narrates — the story's — brutality, is all the more compelling, because it is neither unusual nor a relic of the past. Thousands of dissidents remain in detention in Myanmar.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) — a Mae Sot-based human rights group that has campaigned for the release of Myanmar's political prisoners since 2000 — estimates around 10,000 former political prisoners still live inside Myanmar and continue to face the threat of imprisonment.

It is clear that the country's regime is tightening its stranglehold over its people. The past several years have seen dissidents in custody face the growing prospect of having their sentences extended, and those facing trial now are also more likely to be handed long sentences. As recently as November 2008 more than 200 people were sentenced to prison terms of between 65 and 104 years each.

The policy has not only been a continuation of the regime's crackdown since the Saffron Revolution in 2007— when more than 4,000 people were rounded up and detained after thousands of laypeople and monks took to the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms.

This policy is also a means to ensure elections scheduled to take place next year progress trouble-free, and an attempt by the junta to smother the human rights movement inside Myanmar.

The country's recent history reads like a glossary of human rights abuses; the regime's systematic use of rape, torture, detention, extra-judicial killings, forced labor, and land confiscation—alongside intermittent ethnic insurgencies — have been well documented.

Junta's Economic Policies

The regime spends around $330million a year on its military, more than four times on education and healthcare combined.

The regime's, or State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC), continued mishandling of its economy has also led to widespread suffering to its people.

The junta's economic isolation and mismanagement means that the average Burmese person is no better off now than 20 years ago, earning less than a dollar a day.

Meanwhile, the regime spends around $330 million a year on its military, more than four times the amount it invests annually on education and healthcare combined.

The 1988 uprising and the 2007 demonstrations were largely fuelled by a demand for economic, as well as political, changes after spiraling inflation meant ordinary Burmese people could no longer afford to make ends meet.

The thread that tied, and continues to bind, politics and human rights together is the dismal state of the country's economy.

The international community, including the United States (US), the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), China, and India, have to accept that economic and diplomatic pressure must underpin any influence they exert over the SPDC to reform.

The recent increase in political repression in Myanmar and Suu Kyi's trial not only illustrate that the SPDC is not willing to relent, but also that international policy in pushing the regime to change has so far largely failed.

The two paths traditionally taken to try to coax, cajole, and threaten Myanmar have been a policy of engagement by Asian countries and the West's hardball approach of isolation and sanctions. Neither has worked. A change of international policy on Myanmar has never been more pressing.

International Community

Only the international community can force Beijing and New Delhi to pressure
Myanmar's generals.

China — and to a lesser extent India and Russia — are the only governments that can initiate concrete progress. Beijing is Myanmar's biggest military, political, and economic ally. China is the largest supplier of weapons to the junta.

But India, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine also sell arms to the SPDC. In the past several years, Beijing has also invested billions of US dollars in huge natural gas, oil, hydropower, and mining projects with the SPDC in Myanmar. China is also the biggest exporter of consumer goods to the country.

Beijing and Moscow also continue to protect Myanmar in the international political arena. China and Russia vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution put forward by the United States and the Unite Kingdom in 2007 that would have called on the junta to ease political repression and the persecution of ethnic minorities.

In May 2009, the UN Security Council issued a watered-down statement expressing its concern about the impact of Suu Kyi's continued detention and trial may have on stability in the region, but the statement fell short of openly condemning Myanmar after China and Russia protested.

At this stage, Beijing has no desire to push the SPDC to implement change and has been selective in its use of influence over Myanmar in recent years.

China is not a democracy so is fearful of any possibility the junta will be forced to loosen its grip or be overthrown.

However, Beijing has to carry out a sensitive balancing act; too much repression in Myanmar could lead to greater economic hardship, further mass protests, and internal conflict. The last thing for China, which is keen to protect its lucrative investments, is to establish a stable Burmese market dependent on Chinese imports, and to protect a growing ethnic Chinese population in Myanmar.

Neither does China's main rival and neighbor India — a country that is also courting the SPDC as it vies for Myanmar's huge reserves of gas and oil to meet its growing energy needs.

Only the international community can force Beijing and New Delhi to pressure Myanmar's generals. While the United States and the European Union recently extended sanctions against the regime.

Moreover, the Asean and the UN Security Council have also taken the unusual step of publicly condemning Suu Kyi's trial, so far the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations have done precious little effort to corner China and India.

Nyo Ohn Myint, spokesman for the NLD-in-exile in Thailand, agrees that the West must push China and India to pressure the SPDC, but also called for the NLD to engage in dialog with the regime's generals.

He adds, "Myanmar is a failed state. We have no negotiators inside Myanmar who are willing to talk to the generals, and the regime is very tight; none of the generals wanted to talk with the NLD. Members of the NLD inside Burma should be more flexible, to engage in dialog. We need trust-building on every level between the two camps."

While Beijing and New Delhi score political and diplomatic points off each other in a bid to woo Myanmar's generals — and the international community drags its feet, the resulting political impasse will guarantee only one thing; that Myanmar's future, in line with its recent history, will be pockmarked with tragedy and bloodshed.

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