In recent weeks the Burmese military regime turned on the charm for US Senator Jim Webb in an attempt to ease trade sanctions between the two countries.
The regime allowed Senator Webb to fly out with eccentric US citizen John Yettaw, who was released on "humanitarian grounds" after being sentenced to seven years hard labour for illegally entering Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's house.
The senator's high-profile visit did nothing for Mrs Suu Kyi's freedom - a result of Yettaw's home invasion; her house arrest was extended by 18 months. Nor has the senator's meaningful dialogue with the regime gained anything for Burma's 2,100 other political prisoners.
The regime's quick release of Yettaw drew flak from Ko Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and the co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
"Yettaw's release, and Senator Webb's mission, was a political stunt organised at the expense of political prisoners in Burma. It deflects attention away from the real issues - 500,000 displaced ethnic people, thousands of political prisoners and the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Closed off and isolated from much of the outside world, the military regime has in recent months, in spite of Yettaw's highly publicised release, stepped up its attacks on what it perceives as enemies of the state - its own citizens and its political opposition. The regime has created a climate of fear throughout Burma, using a vast network of security agencies, informers and neighbourhood spies to create a sense of paranoia were nobody is to be trusted. Secret police and para-military thugs have been dispatched in hundreds of night raids to drag opposition politicians, journalists, labour activists, artists, comedians, internet bloggers and Buddhist monks and nuns from their beds.
Those arrested are rarely charged, instead they are held, interrogated and tortured for days or months without access to lawyers or family in secret detention centres, jails or police cells. When prisoners are finally taken to court, it is usually behind closed doors or locked prison gates and without legal representation. Draconian sentences handed down in the last few months have ranged from three to 69 years for acts of civil disobedience.
The latest arrests are regarded by international observers as serving another purpose _ a cynical move by the regime to put political opponents in jail and out of the way before multi-party elections are held in 2010.
David Mathieson, the Burma researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, explains: ''Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political opponents before they announce the next round of sham political reforms. The arrested, represent a broad section of civil society _ monks, artists, poets, writers, lawyers, doctors, activists and journalists.
''What they all have in common is a desire to see an end to the regime. The outcome of the elections is crucial to the regime's plans to solidify its power and continue its political dominance.''
BO KYI: Jailed for the first time in 1990 for leading a demonstration for the release of political prisoners. PHOTOS: PHIL THORNTON
In spite of local and international condemnation of the arbitrary arrests, the regime continues to jail its opponents, Human Rights Watch estimates that Burma has 2,100 prisoners' rotting away in prisons, more than double the figure in 2007, and since October last year, 350 political activists have been jailed.
These include :
Labour activist Ma Su Su Nway, who was arrested on Nov 13, 2007, attempting to put up an anti-government poster. A year later she was sentenced to 12 years and six months, later commuted to eight years and four months. She is serving her sentence in the remote Kale Prison, 680 kilometres from Rangoon.
- Gambari, one of the monks who led the September, 2007, protests, also known as the ''Saffron Revolution''. The regime took its revenge and sentenced U Gambari to 68 years in jail, 12 to be served as hard labour.
- Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 1988 student uprising and chair of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. A strong believer in non-violent civil disobedience protests against military rule, after a series of court hearings he was sentenced on Nov 11, 2008, to 65 years in jail.
- Zargana is the stage name of U Thura, Burma's most famous comedian. After the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, Zargana organised aid deliveries to people in 42 villages. He received threats from the military to stop. He was arrested on June 4, 2008. He was given a total of 59 years in jail, later reduced to 35 years. He is serving his sentence in a one square metre cell, in the remote Myitkyina Prison, in Kachin state, northern Burma.
- Nilar Thein was a high school student when she first took to the streets in 1988 to protest for political change in Burma. In 1991 she was jailed for two months.
In 1996 she was arrested again for protesting against the government and jailed for nine years. In spite of the harsh jail sentences, Nilar Thein refused to give up her right to protest. In August, 2007, she marched with her husband, Kyaw Min Yu, to protest at high fuel costs. Her husband was arrested on Aug 21, 2007. After avoiding arrest for a year, Nilar Thein was captured on Sept 10, 2008. On Nov 11, 2007, Nilar Thein and 13 other political activists, including her husband, were sentenced to 65 years in jail.
AAPP says Burma has 44 prisons and at least 50 labour camps, dependent on the regime's infrastructure projects at the time. Many of the jails do not have hospitals, and at least 12 of them do not have a doctor. The regime jails political prisoners in remote areas as a deliberate ploy to obstruct family members from visiting and delivering much needed food and medicine.
IN JAIL I LEARNED I HAD NO FUTURE
In a small wooden house inside a tree-lined compound on the Thai Burma border, a group of men and women tap at computer keyboards, talk on mobile phones and show guests around a reconstruction of a prison cell. They work for the AAPP and all are former prisoners. Their sentences ranged from 14 years for writing leaflets, to five years for attending student demonstrations.
KYI KYI: Imprisoned for violation of the Illegal Publication Act.
Bo Kyi, a founding member and now secretary of the AAPP, has made it his life's work to ensure these prisoners will not be forgotten. Bo Kyi was jailed for the first time in 1990 for leading a demonstration for the release of political prisoners: ''I was sentenced to three years hard labour. I was interrogated and tortured for 36 hours. I was given no food or water, and was kept handcuffed and blindfolded.'' Bo Kyi was denied access to his family and says they did not know what had happened to him.
''I was put in a small cell, I could see blood and many names, including those of my friends, on the walls. I was not allowed to shower for nine days.''
In spite of the torture and beatings Bo Kyi was determined to stay positive.
''I wanted to study. I had an English dictionary smuggled in. I ate the pages as I learned them. I also learned I had no future. It [jail] taught me to live in the present, otherwise I would have gone crazy thinking about the future.''
Despite this, Bo Kyi is not out for revenge. ''Those who tortured me are also victims of the system. Sooner or later Burma will change, the people want change, but in the meantime people will have to speak out. International NGOs working inside Burma have been silenced, but they need to speak out. We can't let our brothers and sisters rot in jail because they had the courage to protest for change.''
THEY STRIPPED AWAY OUR HUMANITY
Bo Kyi introduced me to a woman who seemed full of energy and laughter, despite having endured similar experiences.
Kyi Kyi (pronounced Gee Gee) Khin covers stories about the lives of migrant workers and refugees in her work as a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma.
''I was a member of the All Burma Students Federation Union. We wrote a newsletter. I also worked as an election campaigner for the NLD in the 1990 election. I think this was the real reason for my arrest. They wanted political campaigners out of the way.''
Kyi Kyi says it is easy for security agencies to know what political activists are up to: ''We had to submit all our travel arrangements and our planned activities to the local authorities. We had to give them all the details. It's similar to now, but now it's even harder. They know everything about us.''
Kyi Kyi was arrested and taken to Military Intelligence 4, in the Bassein Division in the Irrawaddy District.
''I was locked in a dark room for 28 days. I couldn't tell when it was night or day. The floor was concrete; I had a bed base, a pot for a toilet. Water was only given at meal times.''
Kyi Kyi felt the process was meant to humiliate political prisoners.
''You were only allowed to use the pot in the morning, at 6am. The smell was disgusting. When they fed us they slide a plate through a panel at the bottom of the door. They fed us twice a day, we had to eat in the dark _ it could have been anything.''
Kyi Kyi says she was not beaten, but the mental torture was constant.
''I was interrogated five times in 28 days, I had to stay on my feet all night, it was difficult. It was November, very cold, I got sick with fever. I couldn't sit down during the interrogations. I had to lean on the wall.''
Kyi Kyi's brave face breaks as she talks of her dignity being stripped from her by her tormentors. Her laughter turns to tears as she remembers.
''You can't see, you can only guess what's going on. Next to my cell a 16-year-old boy sobbed, on the other side a 60-year-old man continually cried for water.''
Kyi Kyi responded to their plight with the only weapon she had: ''I tried to comfort them by shouting and singing student songs. I had to do something. We were being stripped of our humanity.
''After 28 days I was transferred to jail, I was not charged. I was kept isolated, but at last I was given a shower. I smelled so bad. I had worn the same clothes for 28 days _ they stank and had rotted on me.''
Kyi Kyi, now 43, says being kept in the dark wore her down.
''I was so angry I kicked the door, I screamed, I cried. Most of the other prisoners had left. It was now so quiet. I could hear my heart beating.''
Kyi Kyi was taken to a special court in the jail were she was charged under the Illegal Publication Act and given two years prison.
''Jail was always bad, the food was bad, the rice was never cooked well and it was not always edible. Before I was charged I was kept separated from the prison population, after I was charged we all mixed together. We learned from each other. Thieves taught us how they operated and we talked politics with them.''
After two years, in 1992, Kyi Kyi was released. She stayed in Bassein, and from 1992 to 1995 worked with other political prisoners bribing guards to let them take food and medicine into the jails.
When the regime arrested its then Prime Minister and Military Intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, Kyi Kyi took advantage of the confusion during the dismantling of the Military Intelligence infrastructure to leave for Thailand.
''I told no one I was leaving. My father was worried, he didn't know where I was, so he travelled to Thailand to look for me. On his return he was arrested and sentenced to eight years for communicating with illegal political groups. My father is still in Insein jail, he's now 70, has high blood pressure and his health is failing.'' Kyi Kyi's family is not allowed to visit her father.
''In Burma, if one person is involved in politics the whole family will suffer. The family, the children, are denied promotions or education and will lose their jobs.''
Kyi Kyi says prison taught her a lot about herself and maintaining her dignity even when it seems hopeless.
''I followed my beliefs and kept my values. Political prisoners even got respect from guards and other prisoners because of our resolve.''
Following the regime's crackdown in September, 2007, many people were dragged from their homes by plainclothes police and taken to army interrogation centres. Myat (not her real name) was one of those arrested.
''They came for me at my home on Oct 10. I was taken to a detention centre and interrogated for five days before they sent me to Insein jail.'' Myat, 19, was studying law at a Rangoon University and was a youth member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Myat is thin, shy and hardly fits the ''enemy of the state'' image bestowed on her by military intelligence. Over the next 15 days Myat was shifted back and forth between the jail and detention centre.
''I was terrified. Each time they said they'd release me, but they kept questioning me about who I worked for. The detention centre was dirty _ dirty food, dirty water, dirty floor and a dirty blanket.''
Myat worried about being tortured.
''I could hear people crying all the time, at night the lights were broken. I was scared they would come and beat me. Other people were terrified of ghosts. It was bad place where bad things happened to people.''
Myat's small, windowless cell was hot and cramped. She shared it with a sick seven-month pregnant woman who was arrested for watching the protests from a teashop.
''She was worried about her baby, she cried all the time. The guards told her to shut up. They came into the room and roughly massaged her belly, after that her baby didn't move again. I think it died. I felt so sad for her. She suffered a lot.''
The authorities confiscated Myat's possessions, leaving her with only the clothes she was wearing when arrested.
''They lied. They told my family I'd been released but I was still in Insein jail with four other women who had been arrested for watching the protests from a teashop. I had been held for about a month before my aunt found out where I was. She brought me food and clothes. They intentionally moved me again, so my family wouldn't know where I was.'' Myat was to remain locked-up for two-and-half months. She was eventually released after signing a statement admitting her ''crimes''. Free, Myat avoided politics and was afraid to contact her friends. She worried about the strangers loitering outside her house and those who stood too close to her when she was talking.
''I couldn't take any more. With the help of the underground movement I made my way to Thailand. I want to go back to Burma, all my family is there, but if I do, it will be dangerous for me. I don't want to spend my life in jail.''