Twenty years ago, on 8 August 1988, the students of Myanmar were marching in the streets of Rangoon, the capital at the time, calling for democracy and respect for human rights. Demonstrations spread to the rest of the country, growing in number and popular support over the next six weeks, until security forces violently stepped in, killing more than 3000 people and causing the enforced disappearance of an unknown number of others. The massacre so shocked the world that many people believed that it signaled the end of the regime. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
In the last twenty years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party, Nobel Peace laureate, and icon of the Burmese human rights movement, has been under some form of detention for nearly 13 years. U Win Tin, a senior member of her party, who is now 78 years old and suffers from multiple health problems, has been imprisoned for 19 years, the longest-serving prisoner of conscience in Myanmar. Thousands of other political prisoners have been detained since 1988, of which at least 137 have died in custody, from torture or lack of medical attention. More than 2000 people are now behind bars for political reasons, more than a third of whom following the massive arrests last fall during the violent crackdown on peaceful monk-led demonstrations.
On 8 August 2008, the anniversary of the “8888 uprising”, the police arrested U Myint Aye, director of a human rights organisation and a member of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, clearly on account of his activities in favour of democracy and human rights. To this day, his whereabouts remain unknown.
Last May, the government of Myanmar wilfully refused to accept the international humanitarian assistance desperately needed by its disaster-stricken citizens in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Instead of deploying its 400 000 soldiers to the rescue of affected people, the authorities insisted on forcing traumatized, bereaved and hungry populations to « vote » in an outrageous consultation on the new constitution that codifies impunity for officials who violate human rights.
As with the 1988 uprising, some are hoping that the inhuman attitude of the Burmese State towards the suffering of its cyclone-stricken people could trigger the fall of the regime. Whether it does or not, however, the support of the international community for the courageous political opponents and human rights defenders in Myanmar is needed more than ever.
Among the many unfairly detained persons, we intervene this month more particularly in favour of U Myint Aye, who has just been arrested, and of twenty other prisoners of conscience whose situation is known and a cause of special concern.