The years piled up fast. Sixty-five years in prison each for 14 former student activists. Twenty-and-a-half years for a blogger. Twelve-and-a-half years for a labor leader. Six-and-a-half years for five Buddhist monks. Two years for a poet. In the space of just three days this week, more than 30 Burmese were sentenced to prison or hard labor by the country's ruling junta, a chilling legal onslaught that sent a clear message to other potential dissidents: speak out, and get used to life in a prison cell.
Even for a notoriously repressive regime, the jail sentences were unusually harsh. Last year, the generals who control Burma, also known as Myanmar, violently crushed a peaceful, monk-led protest movement calling for economic and political reforms. Hopes that an influx of foreign aid dispersed after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta last spring would convince the junta to take a softer approach were dashed by the rash of detentions that accelerated in late October. Last week, two journalists were jailed, while three lawyers representing political activists have also been sentenced to prison. "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, in a statement from the New York-based rights group. "These peaceful activists should not be on trial in the first place, let alone thrown in prison for years after unfair trials."
Burma has scheduled multi-party elections in 2010. The polls are considered a charade by many international observers, who note that the leader of the main opposition party, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest and is barred from participating. But even after locking up a woman whose National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections that the junta then ignored, Burma's ruling brass still appears spooked by the power of the people. "Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political activists," says Pearson, "before they announce the next round of sham political reforms." Overall, one Burmese exile group based in Thailand estimates that 2,120 Burmese now languish in jail for their political activism, nearly double the number who were in prison before last year's anti-government demonstrations.
Despite the predictable expressions of condemnation issued this week by countries like the U.S. and Britain, there's little that the West appears able to do to convince the junta, which has ruled since 1962, to treat its citizens more humanely. Economic sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union are undercut by the eagerness with which China and other Asian countries do business with Burma's generals. Although one of Asia's poorest nations, Burma holds a wealth of natural resources like timber, natural gas and precious stones.
The country's leaders have grown rich from the land's bounty, even as most Burmese struggle just to feed themselves. Roughly one-third of civilians live below the poverty line. Last month, many Burmese, who get their news from clandestine radio broadcasts, were shocked by a BBC Burmese service report that claimed a daughter of junta leader Than Shwe had spent more than $80,000 on a gold shopping spree in the city of Mandalay. Than Shwe himself brooks no dissent. The offense of Saw Wai, the poet who was sentenced to two years in prison? Writing a love poem published in a weekly magazine in which the first words of each line spelled out a brazen message: "Power Crazed Senior General Than Shwe."