It has been a frantic week in Burma’s closed courts. At least 60 people have in the past few days been sentenced for their roles in last year’s mass protests, including high-profile activists, monks, a blogger and a poet.
The blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was given a sentence of 20 years and six months for having defaced images of national leaders, writings and cartoons in his email inbox, and for having had contact with other people involved in the protests.
The young man’s mother cried when she heard the verdict. She had been told to expect a sentence of around 10 years, but on just one charge under a new hold-all Internet law he was given 15.
The poet, Saw Wai, was sentenced to two years on a much more old-fashioned charge of upsetting public tranquility, which can be thrown at just about anyone for anything. He got it for writing a concealed anti-dictator message into a Valentine’s Day poem.
It wasn’t very well concealed. But well enough that the censors missed it and the magazine went to print before he was found out.
Then there was Ma Su Su Nwe, who received 12 years and six months for being at the forefront of protests that began after the government increased the price of fuels in August. Another along with her, Bo Bo Win Naing, got eight years.
Su Su Nwe was the litigant in the first successful case to prosecute local government officers for using forced labor in Burma. In 2005, she was convicted on a trumped-up charge and spent some eight months in jail before the International Labor Organization managed to get her released on health grounds.
Musician Win Maw got six years for sending false news abroad, even though it wasn’t false, and there wasn’t any evidence against him to correspond with the elements of the charge.
Over 20 dissidents received 65 years each. They are people who have been in and out of jail since 1988, some of them mostly in, and the length of the sentences is clearly intended to keep them all packed away for as long as it takes, as well as to serve as a warning to others who might be contemplating similar behavior.
Two of them are a husband and wife whose relatives have now been left to raise their baby daughter. Others worked tirelessly for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The activists’ alleged crimes are many, including illegal association, unlawful assembly and sedition. But a lot of them were charged multiple times under different laws and sections of laws for the same acts.
On Tuesday, five monks from a monastery that was at the center of the rallies were also given six-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for similar crimes. Cases against other monks, including protest leader U Gambira, are being rushed through hearings now. But Gambira is one among others who will have to make do without his lawyer, because the lawyer, U Aung Thein, is in jail too.
Aung Thein (pictured above) and his colleague U Khin Maung Shein were both sentenced last Friday for contempt of court and were promptly imprisoned for four months. The remaining cases from last September that the two have been handling will mostly be wrapped up during the time that they are also locked away.
A judge accused the two of contempt after they submitted a letter in another case to withdraw their power of attorney. In the letter, they stated that as their clients had indicated they had no confidence in the judicial process, they no longer wanted to be represented. Instead of going after the clients, who are on their way to jail anyway, the courts shot the messengers.
Their case followed the six-month sentences handed down to two other lawyers the week before. Nyi Nyi Htwe and Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min were convicted of interfering in the court process because they had the temerity to request that a government minister and the police chief appear as witnesses in a case they were defending.
Nyi Nyi Htwe is serving his time now but his associate has gone into hiding. Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min may make it across a border somewhere, or he may be picked up and be doubly punished for failing to turn himself in.
The many harsh penalties have attracted some fleeting interest globally, but like most news stories this one too will dissipate within a few days. After the world has gone on to other things, Burma’s protestors and their defenders will still be in jail.
Some bloggers have started an online campaign for Nay Phone Latt. They have asked people to include his picture on their own sites, which is a good way to keep someone alive in cyberspace even if he can’t go online himself.
Perhaps other Internet campaigners could adopt different detainees. The Asian Human Rights Commission routinely issues detailed appeals on cases coming through Burma’s courts, including on some of those mentioned above. Most contain small photographs that can be copied and put into the side bars of blogs as a link to information about the person.
At times like these, posting a photo on a webpage may seem insignificant, but as the international media gets on with other things it’s important that the rest of us keep coming back to these stories and celebrate courage in the face of tremendous adversity, for the sake of our own humanity as well as that of others.