The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Locked In, Locked Out
By BO KYI OCTOBER, 2010 - VOL.18 NO.10

Election holds little hope for Burma’s political prisoners

Violence, intimidation and arbitrary detention have no place in free, fair and credible elections.

Where violence and intimidation are routine or accepted as a fact of life then the ruse of a “free and fair” election must be exposed for what it is. Rather than bettering the lives of Burma’s 50 million people, the November election is increasing the threats that people face, on a daily basis, from the regime.

Rather than bringing them closer to freedom, the election is taking them further away, narrowing the already confined space in which people live. Added to the list of oppressive decrees and directives—which ban gatherings of more than five people, outlaw debates or discussions about the Constitution and criminalize peaceful opposition parties—is the recently announced decree 2/2010 which prohibits the display of flags, chanted slogans and marching to and from an assembly venue.

Freedom of assembly and association are fundamental components of democratic elections. All parties must have the right to campaign freely in the lead-up to the election. Parties and candidates must be free to hold meetings and rallies to explain their policies to potential voters and persuade voters to elect them to power. Voters need to be confident that they will not face persecution or punishment before or after they vote because of their choice.

The people of Burma have no such confidence, and understandably so. For the past 20 years, the regime has waged a war against the Burmese population, not only in the ethnic areas but also in the cities, where it suppresses peaceful dissent. Burma’s more than 2,000 political prisoners are evidence of this violence.

If the crime of political prisoners is essentially voicing their opinions, a main function of imprisoning them is to isolate them from their potential audience. Those considered prominent political leaders are isolated even further, often sent to prisons in remote areas, far from their families, where access to the outside world is particularly difficult.

However, many continue their activities, at great risk, while in prison. Another function is to instill into the wider population the fear that engaging in politics or activities deemed in opposition to the regime comes at a cost: you pay with your freedom and sometimes your life.

Through Burma’s state-run media, the regime warned that anyone who disrupts the country’s election could face up to 20 years in prison. It reminded people that the 1996 Law on the Transfer of State Responsibility, providing up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who “incites, delivers a speech or makes oral or written statements that undermine the stability of the state, community peace and tranquility and prevalence of law and order,” is still in force.

The violence and imprisonment facing those who speak out against the current regime makes a mockery of the credibility of the election, when a cornerstone of any election is criticism of the incumbent party.

The military regime has ensured its victory through its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); and in the pursuit of victory, it is encroaching ever further on people’s fundamental freedoms. A fundamental principle of free and fair elections is that the voter is free to support or to oppose government, without undue influence or coercion of any kind, which may distort or inhibit the free expression of the elector’s will. Voters should be able to form opinions independently, free of violence or threat of violence, compulsion, inducement or manipulative interference of any kind.

The USDP is guilty of blatant vote buying—handing out free medical care, identity cards and building wells for clean water, if villagers commit  in writing to vote for the USDP.

Vote-buying among desperately impoverished people is a cheap trick. Villagers are also forced to join the USDP. Members of opposition parties contesting the elections have their houses raided by the Special Branch and their families are questioned and photographed. Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are repeatedly detained and interrogated.

USDP member Dr. Sai Mawk Kham, while campaigning in Lashio, Shan State, told his audience to “use your heads rather than your hearts.” If they were bent on only using their hearts, he said, “there will be two options for you to choose—jail or the jungle”—leaving people little choice but to vote for the USDP.

The cumulative impact of long-term repression and ongoing systematic rights violations can be staggering. Where, then, can people turn in seeking inspiration to rouse them from their apathy?

Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi are two brave men who spent the 1990 election in a prison cell. Twenty years later, they will spend the next election behind bars. Offered the choice of freedom on condition that they publicly accept the junta’s election process, they refused.

Instead they hold fast to the “Maubin Declaration”—an accord they reached in Maubin Prison in 2008 stating that the 88 Generation Student group will not support an election without the unconditional release of all political prisoners and unless the regime engages in an inclusive dialogue between all the political stakeholders.

Imprisoned 88 Generation leaders are resolute in their position that the conditions for the November election are unacceptable and, as a consequence, they are prepared to sit out the remaining 63 years of their 65-year prison sentences.

What can Burma’s political prisoners expect from the upcoming election? When the newly “elected” military regime is formed, it is likely that it will release a number of political prisoners in an attempt to promote a new, more humane image.

Such an amnesty, if it happens, should not be accepted as an act of compassion or the promise of things to come. A number of political prisoners who received sentences of two or three years after the September 2007 demonstrations are anyway due for release early next year. Unfortunately, the small act of “kindness” represented by an amnesty will allay the conscience of some in the international community who support the election. It will reinforce the voice that elections, no matter how fraught, can bring about change.

If the international community is serious about change in Burma, then it must denounce the election as devoid of legitimacy without the release of all political prisoners.

If the regime is genuinely interested in change it would have already released Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing and other political prisoners, allowing them to freely contest the elections.

The past two months have seen the release of more than 200 prisoners, but no political prisoners were among them. This is hardly surprising and only indicative of the threat political prisoners pose to the regime.

We should not underestimate the power and beauty of words. Vaclav Havel, a former political prisoner who went on to become the first president of the Czech Republic, once described the world he lived in as “a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”

Bo Kyi is co-founder and joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, based in Mae Sot, Thailand.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |