Imprisoning Relief Workers: Understanding the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis

This is the fifth of seven posts from Dina Fine Maron and M. Francesca Monn, writing from Mae Sot, Thailand, a town on the border with Burma. Maron and Monn are PHR interns who are collecting information about medical conditions and human rights abuses inside Burma’s prisons. This research is being completed with the help of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B), a Thailand-based advocacy group consisting of former Burmese political prisoners.

When Cyclone Nargis ravaged the southern coast of Burma in May 2008, it left a trail of destruction and devastation in its wake. More than 100,000 people were killed or missing, but in the days following the cyclone the military junta government refused to accept international assistance for its people. Later, it only allowed international aid that was funneled through the government.

This humanitarian crisis drew the eyes of the world to a military state that failed to appropriately respond to a disaster and protect its people. Burmese individuals who stepped in to provide crucial assistance, help bury the dead, or call for humanitarian aid were arrested under loosely-related charges and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

These aid workers remained in prison for several years and only recently—amidst heightened political pressure from Western powers—were some of them released. Many high-profile prisoners were released and granted amnesty by the Burmese government in mid-January. However, the identities of these prisoners are still being confirmed and the identities of those in jail remains a mystery.

Many of these medical workers were sentenced under the Electronic Transactions Law, a provision which outlaws the distribution of any materials that are not explicitly approved by the government. Another common charge, the Unlawful Association Act, prohibits contact with or funding of unapproved organizations.

Where noted, it has been confirmed by local media that these individuals were released by the January 12 order:

  • Released: A sports journalist by trade, Thet Zaw was arrested in June 2008, returning from a trip to Irrawaddy delta where he was delivering aid to Cyclone Nargis survivors and videotaping the relief efforts. He was serving an 11 year prison sentence (which had been commuted from a 19 year sentence). In Taungyi prison he has been 400 miles from his family, including his young daughter. His wife reportedly traveled to the prison but was denied access to him. Zaw was charged with insulting religion, making a statement or rumor conducive to public mischief and crimes under the electronic transactions law. This was not Zaw’s first time in prison. According to AAPP, he was previously arrested for his role in the 1988 political uprising and sentenced to serve 3 years in prison. Later, he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death because his sports magazine questioned the use of $4 million in US donation money to promote football in Burma. That sentence was also later commuted to 3 yrs.
  • Min Thein Tun (aka Thiha) was arrested in July 2008, for his role in distributing relief materials to victims in the Irrawaddy delta region. He had been working, legally, in Malaysia when the cyclone struck and began collecting donations for victims of Nargis through his blog. He was arrested during his third relief distribution trip; since then his blog has been shut down. His family was unable to afford attorneys for his trial, and he was subsequently sentenced to 17 years of imprisonment.

The sentences given to those who were involved in relief efforts for victims of Cyclone Nargis were unwarranted. The new government has taken positive steps by releasing many of these prisoners and encouraging ceasefires in ethnic areas.

PHR encourages the government to release the remaining political prisoners and support, not condemn, individuals and groups who provide aid to their fellow citizens.

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