Why are more than 250 activists facing trial in Burma?
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Why are more than 250 activists facing trial in Burma?

The New York Times released a timely op-ed this week warning that investment in Burma could aid the military, whose power the reform drive is ostensibly aimed at diluting. “A central policy of the regime is to attract foreign investment into the impoverished country,” it said. “At issue now is whether Myanmar’s transition will be more than a ploy to draw in foreign money to fatten the military.”

It’s a pertinent question to ask now as increasing numbers of western firms eye ventures in the country. The army still wields great clout over the economy through military-owned outfits like the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), a vast and shady conglomerate with its roots in junta-era Burma. A quarter of the annual state budget goes to the military – any investment in Burma will inevitably contribute to this.

Seemingly being overlooked is an ancillary story to the debate over responsible business practice. In the past few weeks, courts in Burma have found more than a dozen people guilty of breaking Article 18, the bill enacted last year (to some loud clapping from abroad) to allow, and govern, peaceful protest. Some have been given months-long jail terms with labour, others have been fined. A number of the people were protesting sensitive economic ventures, like the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Burma, or criticising delicate matters like the arrest of a land rights activist, or poor workplace standards.

Increasing numbers of these stories are emerging – the woman who has been threatened with arrest for refusing to leave her land, on which a huge Japan-backed industrial zone is to be developed; the seven-month sentences yesterday given to activists peacefully protesting the Kachin conflict.  What seems to have gone largely unnoticed is that despite Article 18 and the government’s accompanying pledge to allow space for activism, protestors continue to be criminalized – in fact we’re in the thick of a major but silent crackdown on activists, with 253 people currently awaiting trial on politically-motivated charges, according to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The specific charge pinned on many of them is that they did not consult with the government prior to protesting.

When Article 18 was enacted last year, it was this point that critics highlighted as a cause for concern. The clause essentially gives the government ultimate control over freedom of speech, which is antithetical to the main purpose of protests – to hold the state to account. A government that curtails that right cannot be considered democratic.

The key commonality here is that many of these charges have targeted individuals and groups whose protests threaten to spotlight highly sensitive issues like the extractives industry, the Kachin conflict, meager salaries and workplace abuse of factory employees, etc – in short, the issues that are most sensitive to the government and military and its close network of business tycoons and prized foreign investors. As the brutal crackdown on the Letpadaung mine protestors showed last year, the government is willing to allow reforms to move forward until they begin to eat into the interests of this nexus. Protection of their interests currently appears to override what should be key elements of the transition.

Some will argue that things have improved for activists – what would have been decades-long sentences three years ago are now far shorter. Yet that position neglects to acknowledge the implications of the continued criminalization of protest, something that statistics prove is still happening on a worrying scale. This has important consequences, particularly if, as the New York Times warns, it stops a light being shone on the military’s continued clout over the economy and political arena. This however is evidently the precise aim of the crackdown.