On Nov. 28 my brother, Thet Zin, a Burmese journalist brave enough to remain in his country, was sentenced to seven years in prison by the military junta there. His crime? Possession of a U.N. report about the military’s crackdown on demonstrations by monks and democracy activists in September 2007 — known around the world as the “Saffron Revolution.”He’s not alone. In the past two months the junta has sentenced more than 230 political detainees to lengthy prison sentences, some as long as 68 years. The total number of political prisoners in Burma is now more than 2,100, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007, before last year’s protests, according to Amnesty International and other human-rights groups.
The terrible irony is that when I tell my Burmese friends and colleagues about my brother’s sentence the typical response is, “Only seven years?” How far we’ve fallen that we consider anything less than decades in prison to be somehow a blessing.
My brother is the editor in chief of a weekly journal you’ve likely never heard of called the Myanmar Nation. On Feb. 15, the military raided his office and dragged him and his office manager, Sein Win Maung, away. They were eventually charged with crimes against the state under the regime’s Printing and Publishing Law. All this for being in possession of a U.N. report widely available on the Internet.
Torture and interrogations followed. He was sent to Burma’s notorious Insein prison. He nearly died there when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May, claiming more than 80,000 lives. Now he’s facing a term in a filthy, disease-ridden prison that could result in his death.
The reality is that my brother did get a lighter sentence — the maximum under the law which he was charged with violating. Nowadays, high-profile dissidents usually receive prison sentences from 20 to 70 years. Since November, the special courts held inside the Insein prison compound have rushed to complete the hearings against Burmese democracy activists, Buddhist monks, student leaders, ethnic minority youth, labor activists, journalists, poets, bloggers, and even comedians and musicians who were arrested during and after last year’s peaceful protests.
These hearings and sentencing continue in the absence of their attorneys. Worse yet, three defense lawyers were imprisoned for between four and six months for contempt of court after transmitting their clients’ complaints of an unfair trial. (Another defense lawyer convicted of contempt of court fled to the Thai border to evade arrest.) Four other defense lawyers were barred from representing their clients.
The military is immediately transferring those who receive sentences to prisons in remote areas. Earlier this month, my brother was sent to a prison in Kalay, 680 miles from his home in Rangoon in Burma’s northwestern frontier — far from all those who care about him.
The goal of such harsh punishments is clear: to eliminate potential opposition in the run-up to the 2010 election, which is the last step in the junta’s “Seven-Point Roadmap to Democracy.”
The junta is mocking the U.N. Security Council, which issued a statement in October 2007 calling for the release of all political prisoners, including Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. In response, 112 former presidents and prime ministers from more than 50 countries signed a letter this month urging U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to return to Burma for the first time since his visit after Cyclone Nargis and press for the release of political prisoners.
Indeed, Mr. Ban, who recently expressed his “disappointment” and “frustration” with progress in Burma, should go back and tell junta leader Gen. Than Shwe what he told the press not long ago — that the “status quo ante is not acceptable and politically unsustainable,” and that all political prisoners must be released by 2010.
Meanwhile, my brother and thousands of other political prisoners in Burma continue to languish behind bars. The world was watching during the “Saffron Revolution.” Is it still?
Min Zin, a Burmese journalist in exile, is a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.