RANGOON — Celebrations swept across the nation on Friday, as the National League for Democracy secured a major electoral victory and signaled a more credible shift toward democracy in Burma. Herself a former political prisoner, the party’s chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has become an icon of freedom from the tyranny of military rule. Many in the country, however, withheld their joy last week, mindful that the transfer of power will take months and the new government could still face hurdles to free prisoners of conscience that are currently behind bars.
President Thein Sein vowed to rid the nation’s prisons of political detainees by the end of 2013, a promise he famously failed to fulfill. Nearly two years later, more than 100 are serving sentences and some 400 others face charges viewed as politically motivated, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
In the weeks before the Nov. 8 general election, a rash of arrests grabbed the world’s attention; at least three people in the span of one month were arrested and charged for defamation after sharing content on social media deemed insulting to the military or the government. One of them, an aid worker named Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, is now suffering from alarming health problems and may be in medical danger if made to wait the months it might take for an amnesty.
At the very moment when the world was watching the Union Election Commission seal the deal on the NLD’s majority of the next parliament—and with it the power to form a new government—Khum Jaa Lee appeared at the Hlaing Township Courthouse to face the prosecution. Only a spattering of journalists turned up, and not much happened. After spending about one month in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, he appeared thin and frail, only to be told for the third time that he did not qualify for bail and his trial would continue on Nov. 23.
“It’s very disappointing, but I was already expecting this,” his wife, May Sabe Phyu, told The Irrawaddy as the hearing came to a close. No stranger to Burma’s history of hostility toward opposition figures, she herself is an award-winning peace and women’s rights activist who has been subjected to threats and harassment for her work. Both are ethnic Kachin, a minority from northern Burma that has long been at war with the central government. Khum Jaa Lee is a well-regarded figure whose work was geared toward landmine risk education and facilitating aid to internally displaced persons (IDPs) affected by the civil conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states.
The nature of his work led many to believe he had been targeted, and perhaps even framed, for arrest. The charge he is facing, under the controversial Telecommunications Law, could land him in prison for up to three years over a Facebook post he insists he did not share. The post in question featured an image of a man wearing a Kachin-style longyi, or traditional men’s sarong, stomping on a photograph of Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
Just days before his arrest, a young NLD supporter was similarly jailed for a Facebook post likening military uniforms to the htamein, or female sarong, of Aung San Suu Kyi. The comparison was viewed as deeply offensive in Burma’s conservative and patriarchal society, where women’s clothing—particularly the lower half—is considered impure and damaging to a man’s merit. The two arrests raised immediate and far-reaching alarm; Amnesty International said the incidents showed Burmese authorities to be “thin-skinned and vindictive,” while the US-based Carter Center, which maintains an electoral observation mission in Burma, urged authorities just before the election to release the two prisoners to demonstrate commitment to freedom of expression. Weeks later, another activist had been jailed on similar charges. All three remain behind bars.
In light of what the international community has branded as a successful and credible poll, pressure has eased on authorities for an immediate amnesty of these three prisoners and scores of others who were jailed in relation to student demonstrations earlier this year. The Carter Center, for its part, changed its language in the wake of the election. No longer calling for their release, the Center’s post-poll assessment simply pointed to the detentions as a sign of limits on freedom of expression. The mission’s in-country chief, Jonathan Stonestreet, told reporters on Nov. 10 that the detentions were “an obvious concern that we will continue to follow.”
Even the loudest advocates appear hopeful that a future government—particularly one so representative of former political prisoners and victims of a brutal regime—will do them justice. That shows a great deal of faith, but it doesn’t help those who are currently and arbitrarily detained. David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the detention of Khum Jaa Lee was particularly “disgraceful” given his deteriorating health.
“Thein Sein’s government could, in their final weeks in power, demonstrate common decency and release all political prisoners, including Patrick, students and land rights activists,” Mathieson told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “Failing this, the new government should make it its first order of business.”
May Sabe Phyu sounded similar remarks on Friday as she saw her ailing husband being carted off to prison once more.
“Everybody says, ‘please keep strong’ and ‘hold on to your hope’. It’s very easy to say, but in reality—as prisoners and as family members—it’s a very difficult time for all of us,” she said. “We hope for the best, but, you know, justice is not guaranteed.”
Additional reporting contributed by Steve Tickner.