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Myanmar activists get lengthy prison terms

What started as a devastating week for the pro-democracy movement in military-ruled Myanmar grew worse day by day, as more activists were sentenced to harsh prison terms.
Myanmar Dissidents
Leaders of the 88 Generation Student Group, Ko Ko Gyi, front left, Min Ko Naing, center, and Htay Kywe, right, form a human chain as they walk forward to face the authorities, during one of their democracy campaigns in Yangon, Myanmar, on May 27, 2007. Str / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

What started as a devastating week for the pro-democracy movement in military-ruled Myanmar grew worse day by day, as more activists were sentenced to harsh prison terms.

By the weekend more than 80 had received long sentences that will keep them behind bars long past a 2010 election, activists and analysts said Sunday.

"They are clearing the decks of anyone who is likely to challenge their authority ahead of the election," Larry Jagan, a Bangkok-based newspaper columnist and Myanmar analyst, said of the generals who rule the country.

In the past week, activists, writers, musicians, Buddhist monks, a blogger, a poet and at least one journalist were sentenced to prison terms of as long as 65 years.

"The generals are showing their true colors. Now we cannot even dream of any amendments to the constitution, which is a farce anyway," said Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma, a Thailand-based umbrella organization for exile groups.

Activists taken to more remote areas
Early Sunday, nine of the most prominent activists were taken from infamous Insein Prison in Yangon's suburbs to prisons in more remote parts of the country, according to Aung Din, co-founder of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, which lobbies for political change in Myanmar, also called Burma.

"The transfer of political prisoners to far-flung districts is an additional punishment to the activists and such a move will cause extreme social and financial burden to the families," said Nyan Win, spokesman for the pro-democracy National League for Democracy party headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Most of the nine were arrested on Aug. 21, 2007, for staging a street protest against a massive fuel-price hike announced by the government.

"Now they won't be able to participate in the election," Soe Aung said. "The generals are trying to put the final nail in the coffin to keep themselves in power forever."

Also in the past week, 14 members of the 88 Generation Students group, veterans of a brutally suppressed 1988 democratic uprising, were sentenced to prison terms of 65 years each, and a labor activist, Su Su Nway, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years. At least 10 people allied with Suu Kyi's party received jail terms of eight to 24 years.

Many fled or went underground
Many of the activists were involved in protests in September 2007 that led to huge pro-democracy demonstrations that the army put down by force. According to U.N. estimates, at least 31 people were killed and thousands were detained. Many fled the country or went underground.

"They fear the 88 Generation Students. They were at the forefront of the protest last year and they are not passive," Jagan said.

The European Union said last week that the election scheduled for 2010 will be seen as illegitimate unless the junta frees all political prisoners.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups say the junta holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007, before the pro-democracy demonstrations.

The prisoners include opposition leader Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest.