Prosecutors in Burma can put together a charge of sedition for just about anything. Lots of people learned that they committed the offence by complaining publicly about increased fuel prices last year. Others have inadvertently been seditious by holding well-meaning talks on their country’s future.
So six men who tried to assemble some people and discuss workers’ rights under domestic law on May 1, 2007, should perhaps have seen what was coming. One of them didn’t even make it to the venue. He was intercepted and sent straight to a special army facility. Unidentified men in unmarked vehicles picked up the others and brought them later.
In July, a case against the six (above) began in a closed court, and in September they were found guilty of sedition and other crimes and sentenced to between 20 and 28 years imprisonment.
A fortnight ago, the case of Thurein Aung and five others came on appeal to the Supreme Court, where it had been pending for about three months. After the wait, it didn’t get very far. The court threw it out immediately. The only avenue that now remains for the defendants is special leave of appeal before the same court.
Advocating for workers’ rights is no easy task in Burma. Despite the remnants of socialist-era rhetoric and institutions that purport to place the interests of peasants and workers ahead of everyone else, in reality a host of laws and policing agencies operate to prevent the forming of independent unions, and factories carry warning signs against anybody trying any funny business.
So Thurein Aung and the others must to some extent have known what they were getting themselves into. Still, the litany of abuses and the scale of absurdity found in their case and others like it are indicative of the extent to which Burma’s legal and administrative system suffers from what one group has characterized as legal dementia.
When the charges were first brought, their lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get the hearings moved into an open court on the ground that the country’s judiciary law requires public trial unless otherwise prohibited. Not only were the lawyers unsuccessful, but they themselves were constantly harassed, until finally they were forced to withdraw in protest.
Meanwhile, the state-run newspapers carried articles denouncing the men’s modest attempts at having workers talk about their legitimate problems and legal rights.
“The attendees were divided into small groups, each of which was made up of about ten,” the New Light of Myanmar reported of the May 1 event. “And the groups held discussions about the difficulties they were facing in an exaggerated manner to create outrage of workers and then to incite protests.”
Preposterously, the court held against the six men because they themselves were not workers and therefore workers’ rights were a matter that, it concluded, had nothing to do with them. Through a further leap away from common sense, it decided that as the accused had no business to be organizing events on behalf of workers then they could only have been acting with intent to malign the state.
In every country there is disjuncture between what is written and what actually goes on, between what is said and what is done. However, it is the scale of the disconnect in Burma, where even meeting and talking about established rights under national law constitutes an offence against the state, that is the cause of woe for Thurein Aung and his colleagues, among many others.
Speaking on a shortwave radio channel after news that the appeal petition had been thrown out of court, one of the lawyers expressed no surprise at the outcome but said that they would press on and try for the special leave to appeal nonetheless. He didn’t sound optimistic about the result.
“The chances are really very few,” he said. “Out of a hundred cases, only one or two are ever accepted.” And even for the one or two that are, does it make a difference?