by Marwaan Macan-Markar
(IPS) BANGKOK --
global human rights lobby Amnesty International slammed Burma's military government Monday for perpetuating a widespread climate of oppression, reflecting a turn for the worse in that Southeast Asian country.
There has been a rise in the number of people being arbitrarily arrested and detained due to their political activity, said Amnesty's researchers following a three-week visit to Burma, which ended Sunday.
Currently, there are over 1,350 political prisoners in Burma, Catherine Baber, Amnesty's deputy program director for Asia-Pacific, said during a press conference here. "Even while we were there, people were being arrested. There were several cases."
If anything, there has been a "grave deterioration" in the human rights situation since the May 30 arrest of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, she added. "Continued absence of an (independent and impartial) investigation fuels the climate of impunity in Myanmar (Burma)."
On May 30, goons linked the to Burma's military government attacked pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi and members of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a town north of Rangoon. Thereafter, Suu Kyi and senior NLD members were arrested by the junta.
What also troubled the Amnesty team, which included the organisation's Southeast Asia researcher Donna Guest, was the inadequate system of justice in the country. Trials fall far short of international standards, they said.
Such judicial lapses ranged from the accused being denied access to lawyers or only having access to legal assistance minutes before a trial begins. "In some cases political detainees have not be able to speak in their own defense or cross examine prosecution witnesses," said Baber.
Amnesty's inability to visit Suu Kyi during this visit is indicative of the prevailing political atmosphere in Burma, added Guest. "We were not permitted to visit her."
The rights activists also appeared to have little faith in the political reform that Rangoon's strongmen have been trumpeting as being underway in recent months.
For one, political parties like the NLD are subject to regular bouts of intimidation and harassment, making it all but impossible for groups opposed to the junta to function openly. That is compounded by the lack of a right to free expression, note the Amnesty team.
As severe is the country's law number 596, which deems it illegal for anyone to draft and distribute a constitution without the lawful authorisation of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially called.
"This repressive environment undermines the political process for reform," Baber told IPS. "This law must be repealed."
These preliminary conclusions from Amnesty's December visit could not have come at a worse time for Burma's military rulers.
Since August, under the leadership of newly appointed prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, Burma has tried to convince the international community that it is committed to political change. A seven-point proposal, dubbed the 'road map', has been the key feature of the purported spirit of reform.
This effort was given greater legitimacy during a Dec. 15 meeting in Bangkok, called the "Bangkok process," hosted by the Thai government. At the end of that meeting, attended by 10 governments from Europe and Asia, the Thai government praised Burma's plans to initiate a national convention in 2004 to draft a new constitution.
But Amnesty's views call into question Rangoon's sincerity. What is as damaging is that the rights lobby's judgement -- that "there has been a slide in the human rights situation" -- comes after it visited Burma for 10 days in February this year.
"The Bangkok process was full of fine words about the SPDC's interest in reform, but we will only be convinced if we see concrete action on the ground," says Baber. "To begin with all political prisoners must be released first. Then the suppression to freedom of expression must end."
This appeal -- for political prisoners to be released -- was made by the rights group in February, too. Calls for Rangoon to repeal some of its harsh laws, among them a few going back to the 19th century, were also made. But on both accounts, the junta has not budged.
Burmese exiles who have been at the receiving end of Rangoon's oppression are hardly surprised by Amnesty's latest revelations.
"The efforts since August to appeal to the international community and South-east Asian governments have been part of the SPDC's propaganda to show that change is underway," Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group of former Burmese political prisoners, told IPS.
"If the international community is satisfied that there is change in Burma, things are moving forward, then the SPDC will be happy," he added. "They do not care what Amnesty says."
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