In the same week that President Thein Sein told an audience in London that all political prisoners would be freed by the end of the year, several more were added. First was Brang Shawng, a Kachin farmer taken by police a year ago from a displacement camp in Burma’s north for alleged links to the Kachin Independence Army, and last week given a two-year sentence. According to reports, he was tortured into confessing a role in various bombing incidents in Kachin state, and displayed knife scars across his body and signs of peeling.
The second was Bauk Ja, a prominent Kachin activist who is now being held on charges of negligent homicide. In 2008 she had attempted to treat sick villagers in Kachin state, and one person reportedly died from her treatment – the charge was first lodged in 2010, when she was running for the opposition National Democratic Force in the elections, and later dropped. Now suddenly reinstated, the question of whether it is ethical for an unqualified person to treat the sick should be examined, but against the fact that there were no doctors in the village.
As of March 2013, the military receives around 20 percent of the state budget; healthcare gets 3.9 percent. It’s no small irony that this person died in the region in which the Burmese military has conducted its most expensive campaign to date against the Kachin army, one that on both a local level, given the mass uprooting of families, and a national level, as resources are diverted from hospitals, will have contributed hugely to fueling health problems among civilians.
Bauk Ja had stepped in where the state was glaringly absent, due to Naypyidaw’s overwhelming emphasis on needless military expenditure (it has no external enemy), to the detriment of almost every other sector. That patient’s death is surely the result of government neglect, and it is they who should brought in front of the judge, not Bauk Ja. Conveniently, however, it will help to silence a vocal opponent of rights abuses by the government in Kachin state.
The third arrestee is Kyaw Hla Aung, a prominent Rohingya lawyer and community leader who was taken by police from a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sittwe last week. His charges of inciting unrest mirror those of Kyaw Myint, another community leader from the same camp who was detained in April after protesting attempts by authorities to register the Rohingya as Bengali, which would sound a death knell for any hope of them gaining citizenship in Burma.
Not to be deterred, the British government was full of praise for Thein Sein, who delivered a rousing speech at Chatham House whose more farcical elements the UK glossed over. Indeed it later emerged that Britain had agreed military-to-military ties with Burma, and had approved $5 million in arms export deals, despite an EU arms embargo and warnings from anyone with the slightest insight that Burma’s military is perhaps the least reformed of the state’s institutions, as the Kachin and others will testify.
For those recent additions to the country’s jail cells, the London speech will ring hollow. It may be that the concept of a political prisoner is being repackaged for future use – the more overtly political charges, for example the Video Act or Unlawful Association Act, may be sidelined in favour of seemingly more legitimate ones: negligent homicide or inciting public unrest, for example – ones that other democratic countries like the UK use, and who would therefore have more trouble criticizing the Burmese government for using.
Bauk Ja’s arrest is particularly saddening, given her tireless campaigning for land rights for farmers. That issue, so sensitive because of its exposure of Burma’s powerful business-government-military nexus, is probably why her punishment is so cynical – blaming her for the death of someone she attempted to help, and whom she no doubt still mourns.