Burma Detains Three Pro-Democracy Veterans


2006.09.28
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Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 14, 2005. An All Burma Democratic Forces supporter outside the Burmese embassy. Photo: AFP/Teh Eng Koon

BANGKOK—Burmese authorities have detained three former student leaders from the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, all of whom have already served between 14 and 16 years in jail for their part in the movement, according to fellow activists and relatives.

Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Htay Kywe were taken from their homes between 6 and 7 a.m. on Sept. 27 by officials who told their families that “higher authorities” wanted to talk to them, former student union leader Min Zeya told RFA’s Burmese service.

Sources in Burma who asked not to be named said all three had refused to sign statements in custody saying they were aware of a law barring disruptions to or criticism of a national constitutional convention, which has been boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

He hasn’t come home yet, and we don’t know where to go or whom to ask. We don’t want to say much. Mom is also sick and we are just worried.

Mya Aye, a student leader during the 1988 uprising, said in an interview from Burma that the three men, with whom he had been meeting regularly, hadn’t committed any crimes and were in fact being treated well in detention.

“We talk solely about the paths to national reconciliation-how to bring it about how to rebuild our country. We didn’t commit any crimes,” Mya Aye said.

Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Htay Kywe were being held separately and “well looked after,” Mya Aye said, citing well-placed sources.

Call for reconciliation

“When they were under detention, they were called in a number of times and asked about their views and convictions—I think that’s what is happening now,” he said. “We are closely monitoring the situation and will contact the authorities as necessary.”

“We believe only in national reconciliation. We don’t want to hurt anyone or favor anyone. The basic principles we hold are that any solution should be based on the results of the 1990 general election, on dialogue, democracy, and human rights,” he said.

“Our spirit is our only defense, and if they come to detain us we will just have to face it.”

Our spirit is our only defense, and if they come to detain us we will just have to face it.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the reported detentions and called on the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to release them immediately and unconditionally.

Fears for state of nation

Htay Kywe’s brother said his family was also very concerned about the fate of the three former student leaders, who were being held in separate locations, according to sources close to them.

“I am his brother. He hasn’t come home yet, and we don’t know where to go or whom to ask. We don’t want to say much. Mom is also sick and we are just worried,” he said.

Min Zeya also voiced fears for the effect of these latest detentions on Burma’s fragile political state.

“If it is not as we had hoped, it will be regarded as very negative, affecting all the things we have discussed with the regime in the past, and our hopes for national reconciliation—not only our hopes, but those of others as well. We are worried about that,” he said.

Other key critics of Burma’s secretive military regime, which seized power following democratic election of NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988, also slammed the arrests, with statements from two of the main ethnic armed groups in the country.

The Burmese military dictatorship dislikes students because of traditional animosity since 1962. What I can see is that, in such an atmosphere, arresting student leaders and politicians is not a good sign for them at all.

“First of all, I’d like to talk about these student leaders who had been released from prison after having served long sentences. They suffered a lot in prison, as a result of struggling for freedom and justice for the people,” said Padoh Mahn Shar, general secretary of the ethnic minority Karen National Union (KNU).

'Traditional animosity'

“They have had not enough time to enjoy their freedom…They are the leaders making painstaking efforts to find ways to achieve national reconciliation for the country,” he said.

Nang Khur Seng, spokeswoman for the Shan State Army, agreed.

“The Burmese military dictatorship dislikes students because of traditional animosity since 1962. What I can see is that, in such an atmosphere, arresting student leaders and politicians is not a good sign for them at all,” she said.

“The SPDC should know that their problem cannot be solved alone. It can be solved not only by the student leaders but also by the ethnic leaders in cooperation with the people of Burma. There is no way for a peaceful situation to be created by re-arresting student leaders,” she said.

All three served jail terms

Min Ko Naing, also known as Paw Oo Tun, was the best-known of the student leaders during the 1988 nationwide uprising in Burma. A zoology student at Rangoon University, he called on the All Burma Federation of Students Union (ABFSU) at its inaugural rally on Aug. 28, 1988 to struggle peacefully against military rule, and for democracy and freedom of association.

Min Ko Naing was arrested on March 23, 1989 and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment under Section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, a vaguely worded piece of legislation frequently used to jail dissidents. Held for most of his sentence in solitary confinement, Min Ko Naing was released on Nov. 19, 2004.

Ko Ko Gyi, vice-chairman of the ABFSU, was detained in 1991. He served a 10-year jail term but was held for a further four years until his release from Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison on March 17, 2005.

Ko Htay Kywe was jailed for a total of 13 years and 4 months in 1991. His sentence was also extended by five-and-a-half years in April 1999.

State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck called the detentions “an apparent attempt on the part of the regime to intimidate and silence those who are working to promote freedom, respect for human rights, and democracy in Burma.”

“The United States continues to support democracy activists in Burma who are dedicated to a peaceful transition to a democratic government that fully respects the human rights of the citizens of Burma,” she said.

Washington “renews its call for the military junta ruling Burma to release all political prisoners, cease its systematic violations of human rights, and initiate a genuine process of national reconciliation.”

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Additional reporting by Richard Finney. Produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

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