On Wednesday, Burma's ruling generals opened the iron gate to Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison allowing 10 reporters and 30 diplomats to enter for a few hours to bear witness to the criminal trial against democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
It appears that the regime relented to the global outrage against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s arrest and international diplomatic pressure.
|An aerial view on Rangoon's Insein Prison. (Photo: clkr)|
However, Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the regional human rights group Alternative Asean Network on Burma, told The Associated Press that Wednesday's move “was definitely a stunt by the regime to stave off pressure so they can proceed with their kangaroo court to jail Suu Kyi.
“They wanted to say they are not ill-treating her, so go away! You don't need to see the rest,” she said. “It also means the regime doesn't have a strong case against Suu Kyi and has no grounds to proceed.”
For 63-year-old Suu Kyi, who has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest, the charges of harboring a foreigner at her house come less than two weeks before she was due to be released.
Now, many observers question whether she will ever see the light of day again.
British Ambassador to Burma Mark Canning, who was one of the diplomats at the trial on Wednesday, also said that he thought Suu Kyi would be incarcerated by the junta.
“The outcomes in these sorts of trials—and don’t forget we’ve seen over 1,000 political prisoners locked away over the past 16 months—tend to be pretty predictable, sadly,” he said.
Assuming that Suu Kyi’s fate is already assured by the junta’s ruthless consistency at these farcical summary trials, draws attention to those who have endured similar convictions since the 2007 popular uprising known as the Saffron Revolution.
Last year, dozens of leading activists from the 88 Generation Students group, including Min Ko Naing, were given draconian sentences of up to 65 years and sent to prisons in remote rural areas. Many of those imprisoned were middle-aged; if they are forced to serve their full sentences, many will die in prison.
There are now more than 2,000 political prisoners being held in gulags and labor camps across the country.
The harsh sentences are, of course, designed to discourage dissent. Furthermore, under the current judicial system, there is little chance of a fair trial; even the lawyers who represent dissidents have been reprimanded and, in several cases, charged with contempt of court and disbarred.
The latest case involved two of Suu Kyi’s lawyers, Aung Thein and Khin Maung Shein, who had already served time in prison and who were on Friday dismissed from the bar.
Most of these summary proceedings take place far from the public eye and out of sight of the international community. Not even the International Committee of the Red Cross sees political prisoners nowadays after it was forced to suspend prison visits in 2006.
A report entitled "Silent Killing Fields," published last week by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), paints a horrific, case-by-case picture of systematic abuse behind bars, including torture, deaths in custody, denial of medical assistance and a deliberate policy of transferring prisoners to remote regions to prevent families’ access and support.
According to the report, more than 350 activists have been sentenced since October, and the majority of them have been transferred to remote jails far from their families. Due to the lack of proper healthcare in Burma’s jails, political prisoners rely on their families for medicine and food.
At least 127 political prisoners are in poor health, according to the report, and 19 of them require urgent medical treatment.
In the report, the mother-in-law of activist leader Nilar Thein, who is being held at Thayet prison in Magwe Division, said, "We could not meet her for nearly two months.
Now we are worried about her health after hearing she is vomiting almost daily. She is said to have a peptic ulcer and is in solitary confinement."
According to AAPP, since 1988 at least 139 political prisoners have died in detention, as a direct result of severe torture, denial of medical treatment, and inadequate medical care.
"The situation for Burma’s political prisoners is dire. Not only are there more political prisoners than ever before, they are facing harsher sentences," Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of AAPP, said. "Leading activists have been transferred to the most remote prisons, where there are no prison doctors, and they are more likely to contract diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. This is a new cruel and inhumane strategy by the regime."
Shortly before her arrest, it was reported that Suu Kyi had been suffering from low blood pressure, dehydration and had trouble eating. At 63 years of age, the democracy icon—who was brought up in relative comfort—would most likely suffer more bouts of ill-health is she is kept incarcerated in Insein Prison.
Of course, a weak Suu Kyi means a weakened NLD and this is exactly what Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his oligarchy want. Make no mistake, the stakes are high. Any prospects of democracy and stability in Burma in the near future are drastically diminished if Suu Kyi is thrown in jail.