Two years ago a court in Burma sentenced five farmers to four years’ jail for allegedly causing a public disturbance; a sixth man received eight years for two counts of the same offence. Tomorrow, on July 24, the five will have served half of their terms. In all likelihood, they will have to serve the other half before being released.
The six were imprisoned because they had the audacity to talk about human rights and tried to help people where they lived who had problems with the local authorities.
In April 2007, a group of thugs under orders from the village council attacked Ko Myint Naing, the one who was sentenced to eight years. He suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized in Rangoon. He responded by laying charges against the attackers. After that, he and the five farmers – U Win, Ko Kyaw Lwin, U Myint [above left], U Hla Shein [above right] and U Mya Sein – were accused of stirring up trouble and jailed.
A lot has happened since. The men were in prison throughout the historic monk-led protests of August and September 2007. They were in prison during Cyclone Nargis and the farcical constitutional referendum of May 2008. They have been in prison through two birthdays of their children, two harvests of wet season paddies, two of dry. They will probably still be in prison when some kind of general election is called next year, and when a parliament of sorts sits for the first time in over two decades after that.
All of these things would have happened with or without the six being behind bars. Their captivity is immaterial to the state as a whole. None are prominent political activists whose lives are celebrated abroad and whose circumstances provoke serious responses from international agencies. None would have made a difference at a national level. They were neighborhood activists, concerned with the things that mattered in the lives of people around them.
It is for precisely this reason that their stories deserve to be recalled and their names known. It is through stories of people like the Hinthada 6 that the features of social control in Burma today are most clearly defined. In their tale of injustice is the pettiness and futility of oppressive rule. In their imprisonment is the pointless vindictiveness of a form of government premised upon the regular performance of violence against its citizens, however large or small, and for whatever reason.
Burma’s dictatorship does not persist through the making of grandiose statements about national identity that most people ignore or through the building of pompous edifices in a new capital that most citizens have never seen. It persists through bullied victories and countless petty squabbles, through the petulance of minor bureaucrats, through the conspiring of police with councilors, and councilors with judges to achieve their own ends. It persists by daily putting down people like Myint Naing, U Win, Kyaw Lwin, U Myint, Hla Shein and Mya Sein.
The stuff of military rule in Burma can’t be found by gazing at the big picture. It is not in the pie graphs of global agencies or the photo opportunities of generals at special events. It is in the ugly details, the nitty-gritty. It is in the story of six men convicted in Hinthada, and so many others like them whose stories have not yet been told. That’s why this second anniversary of their imprisonment deserves to be remembered and recounted.