Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

High-Profile Political Prisoners

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

By Phil Thornton for

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma’s independence and national hero General Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. She was educated in Burma, India and England. While studying at Oxford University, she met Michael Aris and they married in 1972.

Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 and joined the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD), where she played a highly visible role in calling for freedom and democracy. In August 1988, thousands of people took to the streets to protest. The military regime responded with force, killing thousands.

Losing its grip on power, the regime was forced to call a general election in 1990. Suu Kyi and other politicians were detained during the campaign. In spite of her house arrest, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 82 per cent of seats in parliament. The regime refused to recognise that the people had spoken and instead started to jail its political opponents.
On March 27, 1999, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, her husband died of cancer. He had petitioned the regime to allow him to visit Suu Kyi one last time, but they denied his request.

Over the next two decades, Suu Kyi spent 13 years under house arrest. She has won numerous international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has called on people around the world to ‘Please use your liberty to promote ours.’

Ma Su Su Nway

Labour activist Ma Su Su Nway first came to the attention of the authorities when she protested against local officials forcing her and other villagers to build a road without pay. In 2005, she won a historic court ruling against local government officials when she filed a complaint that allowed the reporting of labour rights abuses to the International Labour Organisation. In what was a first in Burma, the judge sentenced the village headman and his deputy to eight months jail under a 1999 law banning the use of forced labour.

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However, Su Su Nway’s historic victory would come at a price. She was charged with defaming the village’s new chairman, tried and sentenced to 18 months in the notoriously tough Insein Jail. Su Su Nway has a heart condition that needs medication. After nine months and intense lobbying from the international community, she was released. She then spent the best part of the next year in and out of jail for various protests.

In early 2007, Su Su Nway was detained for three weeks for holding a prayer vigil for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. After serving three weeks she was taken to hospital for treatment for her heart condition. In the August 2007 protests against rising prices, she took to the streets again and narrowly escaped injury and arrest when state-sponsored thugs attack her group.
Su Su Nway went into hiding, but continued to speak out and told a The Irrawaddy reporter, ‘We held the demonstrations not only for us but for all people, including those who beat us and tried to arrest us, including the police.’

She remained in hiding throughout the September crackdown, only emerging to lay flowers at the spot where Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by soldiers. She was arrested on November 13, 2007, when she attempted to put up an anti-government poster near the hotel where senior UN official Paulo Pinheiro was staying. The poster read: ‘Oppose those relying on China, acting as thieves, holding murderous views’.

A year later, Su Su Nway 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.

U Gambira

One of the monks who led the 2007 September protests, also known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ because of the prominent role monks had in the street demonstrations. Also a leader of the All Burma Monk Alliance, which declared the symbolic ‘overturning the bowls’ (patta nikkujjana kamma) protest that excommunicated members of the military.

Outspoken and highly visible, Gambira was forced underground in early October to avoid arrest. A month later he was arrested in Mandalay after his brother and father were detained, forcing him to come out of hiding. In November, Gambira was sentenced to 68 years in jail, 12 to be served as hard labour. His brother and brother-in-law also received jail sentences for helping him when he was on the run from the regime.

Gambira, 28, is currently in the remote Hkamti Prison and is not allowed family visits. His health is reported as deteriorating in the harsh conditions. On the day of his arrest he was reported in the Washington Post as saying: ‘There’s no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.’
Min Ko Naing

Min Ko Naing was the leader of the 1988 student uprising and chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. A strong believer in non-violent ‘civil disobedience’ protests against military rule, his speeches caught the public attention and he quickly became the inspiration for others. After the 1988 uprising and the bloodbath that followed, he refused to leave Burma, remaining to continue his pro-democracy work. At the time he said, ‘I’ll never die. Physically, I might be dead, but many more Min Ko Naings will appear to take my place.’

Arrested in 1989, Min Ko Naing was kept in solitary confinement for over two years. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail and released after 16, in 2004. He continued to protest for democracy change in Burma. A founding member of the ’88 Generation Student Group’, he and 100 fellow pro-democracy activists wore the white clothes, similar to those wore in jail, and every Sunday visited families of political prisoners.
In August 2007, Min Ko Naing led the protest against the regime’s economic mismanagement. He was arrested in a late-night raid on his home and held in solitary confinement for 23 hours and 40 minutes a day. After a series of court hearings, he was eventually sentenced, on November 11, 2008, to 65 years in jail. During the trials he was reported as telling one of the presiding judges, ‘You can sentence us to a thousand years in prison for our political activities, but we will continue to defend ourselves in accordance with the law. Nobody can hide from justice.’

Min Ko Naing, 46, is the recipient of many international awards for his courage and non-violent stance. However, his many years in Burma’s damp jails are taking their toll on his health. He suffers from eye problems, high blood pressure and general poor health.

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Zarganar

Zarganar is the stage name of U Thura, Burma’s most famous comedian. Zarganar translates from Burmese as ‘pliers’ or ‘tweezers’. Zarganar, 48, led entertainers to protest in the 1988 student uprising. He was arrested and tortured for several months, before being released in April 1989.

In March 1990 he was again arrested for helping his mother in her campaign to be elected as an independent candidate. He was given four years hard labour. When he was released in 1993, he started making movies, both as director and producer, but was banned from performing on stage or in film. He was arrested for delivering water and food to monks protesting in 2007 and for giving supporting interviews to international radio stations. He was released a week later, but continued to anger the regime.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia on prison conditions and what he saw, he said, ‘The lives of the youths have been destroyed. They are in prison, and some have died. In the prison, there were monks with gunshot wounds on their backs. Also I saw old monks around the age of 72 who got kicked in the ribs.’

After the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, Zarganar took action and organised aid deliveries to victims in 42 villages. He received threats from the military to stop doing so before being 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 three-foot-square cell in the remote Myitkyina Prison, in Kachin state, northern Burma.

Dateline Burma

 

1988: The 8-8-88 mass uprising starts with students protesting in Rangoon and spreads to the entire country. Millions of people protest against the government. Thousands are killed in the military crackdown on students, monks and civilians. Aung San Suu Kyi emerges from the chaos as a national icon.

1989: The regime imposes martial law and changes the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is held under house arrest for ‘endangering the state’, and NLD leaders are arrested.

1990: To appease international concerns, the regime calls national elections. While still under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy wins the general elections with a massive 82 per cent of the seats. However, the military regime refuses to recognise the election results.

1991: Aung San Suu Kyi awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1994: The Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization (DKBO) – a breakaway faction of the KNU – attacks refugee populations in Thailand. The DKBA are an armed militia sponsored by the Burmese regime .The UN passes a resolution that condemns the abuses against civilians.

1995: In January, the regime launches a major military offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU), taking their Manerplaw headquarters. The UNHCR passes a resolution condemning the regime for using forced portering, forced labour and for conducting other reprisals against the Karen civilian populations.

1996: As many as 10,000 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters demonstrate in Rangoon, the largest protests since 1990. On June 7, the regime announces that political opposition rallies are illegal.

2003: While touring northern Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters are attacked by regime-sponsored. As many as 70 people are killed in the Depayin massacre with hundreds injured and scores arrested, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

2006: The regime launches a military offensive in Eastern Burma, burning or forcibly relocating 76,000 Karen villagers.

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2007: The Saffron Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of monks, students, activists and workers taking to the streets to protest at the worsening economic and human rights situation in Burma. The regime sends thousands of soldiers, paramilitary personnel, police and local authorities to beat protesters off the streets.

2008: The regime orders citizens to vote in the rigged national referendum despite the devastation caused when Cyclone Nargis kills more than 100,000 people and displaces millions.

2009: In preparation for elections in 2010, the Burmese regime’s security forces jail hundreds of people; including poets, journalists, writers, comedians and political opponents. Aung San Suu Kyi is taken from house arrest and detained in Insein Jail. Over 1300 Burmese army soldiers and DKBA militiamen attack Karen villages in eastern Burma, forcing 3447 people across the River Moei into neighbouring Thailand.