Myanmar Crackdown Intensifies as Labor Activist Jailed

YANGON ~ Myanmar’s ruling junta is stepping up efforts to curb dissent ahead of 2010 elections, rights groups said on Wednesday after a labor activist became the latest dissident to receive a lengthy jail sentence.

A crackdown on people involved in protests in mid-2007 that were brutally crushed by the military has seen at least 31 activists imprisoned this week, ranging from pro-democracy veterans to a popular blogger.

The latest case saw prominent labor advocate Su Su Nway sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in jail on Tuesday for putting up anti-government posters in the wake of the demonstrations, her lawyer Khin Htay Kywe said.

Her colleague Bo Bo Win Naing, who was arrested with her in November last year, received an eight-year sentence, said the lawyer, who is also a member of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

Another 23 activists were each sentenced to 65 years in prison on Tuesday, while a leading blogger and a poet who wrote a coded criticism of junta leader Than Shwe were among six people sentenced on Monday.

Fourteen of those jailed on Tuesday are former students who were members of the “88 Generation,” which led a major uprising 20 years ago that the military regime also brutally suppressed, a western diplomat based in Yangon said.

“We understand and are proud for them although we cannot do anything right now. We are not frightened,” said Amar Nyunt, 63, whose son Jimmy and daughter-in-law Nilar Thein were among those to receive 65-year jail terms.

She said she was caring for the jailed couple’s 19-month-old daughter, adding: “She is in good health. We will take good care of her while her parents are in prison.”

Sein Linn, 67, the father of Pannate Tun, another of the activists sentenced on Tuesday, said he fell sick after hearing of the punishment.

“I got high blood pressure when I heard the news yesterday,” he said. “I do not understand politics but I cannot afford to do anything apart from feeling for him.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch called the trials “unfair” and called on the Myanmar regime to free 70 activists on trial, mostly in relation to the protests in August and September 2007.

“These last few weeks show a more concentrated crackdown on dissent clearly aimed at intimidating the population,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The military regime has promised to hold elections in 2010, and Pearson said the convictions were likely an attempt to stifle any dissent ahead of the polls, which critics say aim only to entrench the army’s power.

“Burma‚Äôs leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms,” Pearson said, referring to Myanmar by its former name, which was changed by the generals in 1989.

The Yangon-based diplomat agreed, saying on condition of anonymity that the junta “wants to give a deterrent effect by sending a signal to opponents ahead of the elections announced for 2010.”

The sentences were, however, also a strong response by Myanmar to international calls for the freeing of political prisoners, the diplomat added.

The US State Department Wednesday condemned what it described as Myanmar’s “harsh sentencing” of political activists.

Britain also hit out at the junta, saying that until Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and restrictions on political parties were lifted “there can be nothing approaching free elections”.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon called in a statement for Myanmar authorities “to release all political prisoners immediately.”

Hundreds more activists remain in jail following the protests, which began as small rallies in August 2007 against the rising cost of living but escalated into huge protests led by Buddhist monks that posed the biggest challenge to junta rule in nearly two decades.

At least 31 people were killed in the crackdown, according to the United Nations.

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