Burma: Cyclone Nargis: one year on, six jailed for burying the dead
One year after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, six people have been jailed by the authorities for helping to bury victims while another 15 remain behind bars for their relief efforts. Amnesty International calls on the Burmese government to release these prisoners of conscience immediately and without condition.
The six – Dr Nay Win and his daughter Phyo Phyo Aung, Aung Kyaw San, Lin Htet Naing (aka Aung Thant Zin Oo), Phone Pyeit Kywe and Shein Yazar Tun – were arrested by Military Affairs Security in mid-June 2008 following their efforts to bury cyclone victims in Bogale Township in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta in southern Burma. They were sentenced on 10 April 2009 to prison terms ranging from two to four years.
Since the cyclone hit, Burmese people from all walks of life have been working together to distribute aid from private donors in order to rebuild the devastated areas. Among them is the popular comedian Zarganar. He is serving a 35-year prison sentence for leading a private donor movement that emerged in the aftermath of the cyclone.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, said:
“This is an untold story behind the cyclone. At the same time as relief efforts have moved forward, the Burmese government has penalised people for assisting.
“The authorities should immediately release these 21 people, who are among the over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma.
“One year on, when we mark the first anniversary of Nargis, we should not forget those prisoners who are serving long sentences for trying to help their fellow Burmese. Indirectly they have also become victims of the cyclone.”
Amnesty International has called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to urge the Burmese government, an ASEAN member, to free those who were imprisoned.
As the driving force behind the massive relief efforts – that also included the Burmese government and the United Nations – ASEAN has a duty to ensure that people delivering aid can do so without fear of intimidation or arrest.
Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on 2-3 May 2008. The natural disaster soon evolved into a humanitarian and human rights crisis when for three weeks the Burma government rejected international assistance to provide the necessary relief effort. More than 84,500 people died, tens of thousands are still missing, and some 2.4 million had their homes destroyed or were otherwise affected.
Seven of the 21 people who are in detention for their cyclone relief activities are being held in prisons far from their homes. Political prisoners are now increasingly liable to being moved to remote locations. Their families must undertake long journeys to visit them, sometimes up to nine days. Because of the poor conditions and inadequate medical care in Burma’s prisons, political prisoners often rely on their families to provide them with basic medicines, food and clothing.
Zarganar was arrested on 4 June 2008, after he criticised the government’s handling of the cyclone relief situation in interviews with the foreign media. Zarganar, an activist and a dentist by training who joined the 1988 uprising against military rule, had been previously arrested for his pro-democracy efforts. He is currently in poor health and is being denied proper medical attention.
Amnesty International also calls on the Burmese government not to torture or otherwise ill-treat these prisoners of conscience at any time. The prison authorities should also provide them with all necessary medical treatment for any health problems that they have.