Over a week ago, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued an appeal on behalf of U Ohn Than, who is imprisoned in Kamti in upper Burma. The 60-year-old was among the few who protested last August against the government’s unannounced dramatic increase in fuel prices, precipitating the historic monk-led revolt in September.
Ohn Than went out alone, standing opposite the U.S. Embassy in the center of Rangoon with a placard that called for United Nations’ intervention and pleaded for the armed forces and police to join in efforts to topple the junta. (VIDEO)
His protest did not last long. Within a few minutes an unidentified vehicle pulled up and a group of men threw him inside and drove away. For the public, that was it. For Ohn Than, it was only the beginning.
Ohn Than was not taken to a police station, as required by Burma’s penal code, but to a special army barracks that was used to house thousands, similarly detained without charge or procedure, in the coming days and weeks. He was kept there, a non-detainee in a non-prison.
Several months later, at the end of January, Ohn Than was finally charged with sedition, which requires that the prosecutor prove that Ohn Than had provoked “hatred or contempt” for the government, or had attempted to “excite disaffection” toward it.
Under other circumstances, this may be a difficult task, but Ohn Than was tried in a closed court, unable to present witnesses, and was denied a lawyer, making the prosecutor’s job less onerous.
Still, Ohn Than did his best to argue a case, cross-examining nine witnesses, all of them state officials and government thugs, and asking questions that were consequently struck from the record when the judge found them impertinent.
In his defense, Ohn Than said that he had not intended to incite hatred toward the state and pointed out that the wording of his silently-held placard was simply calling for democracy instead of dictatorship, and for the armed forces to uphold their dignity by siding with the people.
He also noted that a government-backed group had held a rally near the same spot in February. None of the hundred or so that had gathered had been charged with any offence. He had assumed that he had the right to do as they did.
In the end, it seemed Ohn Than’s words were of no import. The judge skipped lightly over the facts and handed down the required sentence.
Dictators have long relied upon pliable judiciaries to deal with political opponents or former allies, and in this respect Burmese courts are unremarkable. Still, whereas in many countries the courts have been used for rehearsed public performances of justice, it is not the case in Burma.
In Moscow, show trials under Stalin were highly scripted; in Beijing, the Gang of Four trial (shown above) was an important part of a public and political catharsis. In each case, the performances were paramount. The law mattered little.
What is striking about the trials in Burma today is that neither the performance nor the law matters. They go on without fanfare or outside interest and no purpose other than the illegal imprisonment of persons who were already illegally imprisoned, without anyone to witness their parodies of justice other than the performers themselves.
Ultimately, it is this lack of audience that makes these trials particularly disturbing. Unable to operate with integrity, Burma’s courts do not even serve as a locale shaping and exhibiting state propaganda. Their judgments, having been stripped of both coherence and relevance, are disinterested in the police’s attention to the law, the presence of the prosecutor’s evidence, or the defendant’s defense. There is no sound, no fury, and no significance.
No significance, that is, other than the significance of absence. For a few fleeting moments, U Ohn Than was visible on the streets outside the embassy. There was no other opportunity: no television camera recorded his testimony to the court; no newspaper declared in print the passing of his life sentence. His was the role of an actor in an uncelebrated farce, a farce repeated daily.
See also: Burma, political psychosis and legal dementia (article 2)