Freedom cries from Burma’s jails
By Aung Zaw
November 14, 1993
Burmese writers, cartoonists, poets, actors, singers, musicians and journalists have not been spared by Rangoon’s ruling military junta. Aung Zaw comments.
Recent heavy sentences handed down to its opponents clearly show the Burmese people and the world that the Burmese regime, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), is ready to eliminate any obstacle on its way to power.
This is despite the optimism of some of its Asian friends that the cosmetic changes in the last two years is leading towards a democratic Burma. Slorc’s latest move should show its Asean neighbours that their “constructive engagement” policy cannot stop Slorc terrorism and offer real help to Burmese people seeking democracy.
At Insein Court in mid-October, approximately 15 political prisoners, including tow prominent figures, Dr Aung Khin Sint, an MP from the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Ma Thi Da, a famous short story writer, were sentenced to 20 years each for their opposition to the junta’s National Convention. They were accused of distributing anti-junta leaflets and contacting “illegal organizations”.
Dr Aung Khin Sint was a delegate to the Slorc-sponsored National Convention. He and his assistant were arrested in August. Sint’s assistant was sentenced to 38 years. The junta did not elaborate on the heavy sentence. The arrests and sentences frightened the delegates at the National Convention despite Slorc’s offer of “freedom of expression” to the delegates. Ironically, Dr Aung Khin Sint’s brother, Aung Khin Tint, is a member of the National Convention Convening commission, which was set up to oversee that the convention rubber-stamped its intention to stay in power.
Ma Thi Da, whose pen name Ma Thi Da San Chaung, is a well-know short story writer and doctor. She has been in poor health for years. Thi Da was arrested on 7 August. Her first trial was postponed as too many people had gathered at Insein Court. According to BBC World Service, Ma Thi Da and Aung Khin Sint together with others were not allowed to see their families since their arrests. Ma Thi Da was an organizer during NLD’s nationwide campaign in 1989 and 1990. She was close to Aung San Suu Kyi. Her short stories very often reflect the life of ordinary Burmese people. Her compilation of short stories was never published because it was not approved by the Press
Scrutiny Board (PSB).
Recently, Amnesty International released a statement expressing its concern for these people and recognized them as “prisoners if conscience”. Amnesty also expressed its concern for the treatment of these political prisoners in jail. Maltreatment, lack of medical care and refusal of visits by relatives are common occurrences in Burma. Many human right organizations, including International PEN, are worried. In 1992, 61-year-old U Ba Thaw (pen name Maung Thaw Ka), a satirist, popular speaker and executive member of the NLD in 1989, died in prison as a result of ill-treatment. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment with hard labour by a military tribunal in October 1989 after his arrest.
For writing a letter to a military officer during the 1988 uprising, he was accused of trying to cause a mutiny in the army. His satirical speeches and poems critical of BSPP and Slorc are notable in Burma. “They made people laugh and at the same time fill us with anger and pain,” a Burmese from Rangoon said. He was severely tortured and beaten during his interrogation – he was also locked up in a small cell, according to his friend and fellow writer, Maung Sin Kye.
Maung Sin Kye himself fled to the border area in 1992 after he was freed from Insein Prison.
“Ko Thaw’s health condition has always been poor. When the military officers beat and kick him, it worsens his condition. When he was ill, he was denied medical care,” Maung Sin Kye said.
When students in jail; staged a hunger strike in 1991, Maung Thaw Ka gave his full support, For that, he was badly beaten, tortured and locked in small cell without food when Slorc sent soldiers to crush the “prison insurrection”. Some students were reportedly killed by troops during the huger strike. “They finally killed his voice,” a Burmese who was close to Maung Thaw Ka in Rangoon said.
Some political prisoners also died in prison or died shortly after they were freed. One of them was U Ne Win, 60, writer and local correspondent for the Japanese Asahi Shimbun. He died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1991 shortly after he was released.
Two other well-known prisoners, U Win Tin, 64, and Zargana, 30, are still being detained. Win is a journalist, writer and former editor of the Hanthawaddyi and Kyemon newspapers in the 50s and 60s. Win Tin was also an executive member of the NLD. He was sentenced to three years but the sentence was later extended to six years.
In September 1992, Amnesty International and other human right organizations expressed their condition: he was sick and not given adequate medical assistance in prison.
Zargana (pincer), 30, is one of the most popular comedians in Burma. Since the early 1980s he had always mocked and teased the regime. He was arrested many time and was freed after interrogation. The last time he was arrested, he was sentenced to five years jail. In 1991, he was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Award by the Fund for Free Expression, a committee of the Human right Watch.
Since the crackdown on democratic opponents in Burma, there are approximately fifty Burmese writers, cartoonists, poets, actors, singers, musicians and journalists apprehended by the Slorc. Their sentences ranged from three to 20 years’ imprisonment. About 30 other were forced to flee since the 1988 bloody coup staged by Gen Saw Maung. They are currently living in exile.
It has been a long-drawn war between Burmese artists and the military regime, which nationalized all newspapers and journals after it came to power in 1962. Many were under surveillance, taken for interrogation frequently and some were jailed. A poet who came out in 1990 said, “The military intelligence never come to take us during the day. They only strike at night, and nobody, including our families, know where we are taken to.”
Some people believe that Slorc does not know how to deal with these people.
One resident in Mandalay said, “They (Slorc) don’t know yet what to do with these prisoners. The only solution at the moment is to keep tem in jail because Slorc is not ready to answer their challenges publicly.” He continued to say, ‘The people like Maung Thaw Ka, Zargana, U Win Tin and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are as stubborn as Slorc. Slorc dose not feel secure to let them free on the streets. Their voices and beliefs are so powerful; and they are greatly admired by the people.”
A former diplomat who was in Rangoon during the 1988 turmoil said that the recent heavy sentences are a warning to opposition groups not to disrupt the National Convention, which will resume on Jan 17 next year.
A Burma expert based in Bangkok had this to say about the recent trial: “Looking at this event, Slorc shows that they have no respect for the world community. At the same time, they are challenging the Burmese people who want to oppose them to be ready to accept the heavy consequences.”
This article first appeared in The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, Sunday, November 14, 1993.