In September demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in Burma were brutally suppressed by the military government. Smaller protests, initiated by pro-democracy activists, had been ongoing since 19 August following a huge increase in oil prices.
The world sat up and took notice when thousands of monks took to the streets and there were headlines referring to ‘the saffron revolution’. When the monks fled or were forcibly removed, civilians took their place at the forefront of the protests. Information was sketchy until the arrests and violence began to be reported via the Internet and blogspots and horrifying pictures, sent from mobile phones, began to circulate.
On 28 September The Times published a shocking picture of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, who had been shot and later died in hospital. The following day The Independent’s front page was completely black with the headline ‘what the Burmese junta wants you to see’. The inside pages were filled with ‘what the world must know’.
The media’s reaction to what has been happening in Burma may sound dramatic but human rights groups have been campaigning for democratic change for decades. The last demonstrations, led by students, against the military regime occurred in 1988 and were brutally suppressed. Sixteen years ago, Article 19 published a human rights country report entitled ‘State of Fear’ – a bleak outlook which remains prevalent today.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation has been documented in these pages various times, most recently in August 2006 after her house arrest was extended for a further year. It is perhaps no surprise that amidst the current turmoil in Burma our attention turns once again to the charismatic opposition leader as the country’s beacon of light. In fact, to refer to her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), as ‘the opposition’ is not strictly accurate. In 1990 Suu Kyi’s party gained a landslide victory with 82 per cent of the vote, but the military regime (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997) refused to recognise their right to rule and has kept a tight hold on power ever since.
Suu Kyi has spent most of the last eighteen years under house arrest, but for the Burmese people she represents their best hope for an end to the country’s military repression. Now calls for her release have become more urgent and even Hollywood is involved, with actor Jim Carrey spearheading a campaign urging Americans to join the effort to free Aung San Suu Kyi, hailed as ‘the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient’.
The writers’ organisation PEN is also renewing calls on the government to lift all restrictions on the NLD and release Suu Kyi from house arrest. PEN is currently campaigning for the release of nine writers, serving sentences ranging from seven to twenty-one years’ imprisonment, detained for their peaceful opposition activities. It has also issued urgent appeals on behalf of comedian Par Par Lay (aka U Pa Pa Lay), who is one among many pro-democracy activists reported to have been arrested during the protests. According to PEN’s information, Par Par Lay was arrested on 25 September 2007 during the crackdown on protestors, and there are mounting concerns for his well-being and safety. U Par Par Lay has been in trouble with the authorities before. On 4 January 1996 Par Par Lay was among a group of entertainers who performed at the home of Suu Kyi, in a celebration commemorating the 48th anniversary of Burma’s independence from Britian. The comedian had joked that government cooperatives were thieves and sang a comic song about the ruling generals. He was arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment for ‘spreading false news, knowing that it is untrue.’ He was released on 13 July 2001 and has allegedly been kept under close surveillance by Military Intelligence ever since.
Suu Kyi is an eloquent spokesperson for the people. Ten years ago Penguin published her Letters from Burma. In one she wrote:
How many can be said to be leading normal lives in a country where there are such deep divisions of heart and mind, where there is neither freedom nor security? When we ask for democracy, all we are asking is that our people should be allowed to live tranquilly under the rule of law, protected by institutions which will guarantee our rights, the rights that will enable us to maintain our human dignity, to heal long festering wounds and to allow love and courage to flourish? Is that such a very unreasonable demand?
Her words are just as relevant today but, given the recent unrest, they have an additional poignancy.
There has been much debate in the British press about the efficacy of international intervention and even which countries wield the most influence with the Burmese junta. However, most people agree that keeping silent is not an option and that appeals are a good thing, demonstrating to the military regime that the world is watching.
Before the protests, the regime had released some political prisoners and it was thought this was down to international pressure. Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the comedian Par Par Lay, and all those detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression and association to:
General Than Shwe
c/o Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles St
London W1J 5DX
Fax: 020 7629 4169 email@example.com