Myanmar, Not Forgotten in the Darkness

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1986 Faroe postage stamp celebrating Amnesty's...
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During the 1990s and into the next century, I was a member of a local Amnesty International group. We were a rich and varied assemblage: Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Swedish, Jewish and other American-born, Spanish; businessmen, professors, students, JPL employees, journalists, future lawyers. Among the central tasks of a local Amnesty group is to take on the case of a Prisoner of Conscience (POC), an individual imprisoned in his or her country for the exercise only of those political, speech, religious or other rights we in liberal democracies appreciate in full consciousness far too little. It is the job of local groups to maintain letter-writing campaigns on behalf of their POC, letters to government officials of the offending nation reminding them of the universal rights of those they keep imprisoned and urging the government to act according to due process, to permit Red Cross or other international representatives to visit the prisoner and to release the prisoner.

Our group’s POC was a Burmese “student,” Win Naing, arrested during the demonstrations after Aung San Suu Kyi was first denied her 1990 electoral victory by the military Junta that continued to rule Myanmar, and imprison her, for the next two decades. Win Naing, like most other political prisoners, had been consigned to the depths of Insein (insane) prison in Yangon. The special frustration in our case was the complete non-responsiveness of Myanmar’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to any outside communications on behalf of any prisoner. Complicating our sense of focus, too, was the fact that Win Naing is a very common name in Myanmar, and we knew not one other identifying detail of the person whose freedom we championed.

At one regular meeting, in the living room of a longtime benefactress of both AI and our group, we reassessed our work – and our POC. We wondered if we should adopt a different POC, someone we were convinced actually existed, someone for whom we believed we might be able to do some good. We had very nearly decided to pursue that course when Jose, our Spanish member, spoke quietly, but with conviction. He would not long after return to Spain from his doctoral studies in political science to begin teaching. Wasn’t this the point? Jose asked. That Win Naing was so silent and anonymous to us? Wasn’t this precisely what his jailors wanted, what all jailors and authoritarians want – that the outside world give up and forget, that the oppressed and imprisoned, abandoned in despair, be forgotten in the darkness? Wasn’t that why Amnesty International’s symbol is a lone candle entwined in barbed wire?

Jose turned the tide. We did not abandon Win Naing. We continued to write letters. Perhaps two years later, we received news from out of Australia that Win Naing was one of a group of prisoners who had, without public notice, been released from prison the year before. Had our letters played any role? Who can say? But SLORC was never allowed to forget that Win Naing himself was not forgotten.

During those years of my activity with AI, Jim Roberts was an AIUSA Myanmar country specialist. I would ultimately give up my AI membership because of profound disagreement with mission changes enacted by the organization and political turns taken. Jim, I knew, was not happy with them either. He actively, electorally opposed them. His slate lost, but Jim remained with AI. He remains, in fact, an AIUSA Myanmar country specialist. He has remained true to his sense of mission.

Amid current talk of reform in Myanmar, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2010 release from house arrest, and with Hilary Clinton’s just completed visit, I thought I would share Jim’s recent assessment of developments.

Some of those optimists expected that in line with its “reform” program Myanmar would free all its political prisoners when it announced an amnesty in October. But only a little over 200 of the approximate 2,100 political prisoners were released.

Political prisoners continue to suffer under appalling prison conditions including beatings, overcrowding and extremely substandard medical care.

At the same time there has been no let up in the military’s operations against the Kachin, Karen and other ethnic armed groups which have always been accompanied by gross human rights violations against civilians in the contested areas.

When 15 political prisoners in Insein Prison near Yangon commenced a hunger strike on October 26 to protest denial of the same reductions in sentences that were granted to criminal prisoners, the reaction of the government was to torture them by denying them drinking water and placing eight of them in small filthy cells designed to hold dogs.

One might argue that the government of Myanmar cannot completely reform itself overnight if indeed that is its plan. But how long does it take to stop arresting political prisoners?  How long does it take to stop torturing people?  How long does it take to transfer the monk U Gambira to a hospital where he can be treated for complications of torture injuries sustained in April 2009? How long does it take to turn a key in a cell door?  And how long does it take the army to stop the killings and rape of civilians in its counterinsurgency operations?

Maybe when a few of those things start happening the real optimism can begin.

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