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In Myanmar, a New Voice for Human Rights

THE WORLD

Su Su Nway challenged officials on the use of forced labor and won. But now she's in prison.

May 21, 2006|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

YANGON, Myanmar — Su Su Nway was orphaned as a child and has a heart condition. But that hasn't kept her from challenging one of the most brutal regimes on Earth.

The soft-spoken 34-year-old, who lives just outside Yangon, thought it was wrong that local officials forced her and her neighbors to work repairing a road without pay. So she took them to court under a 1999 law, never enforced, that banned compulsory labor.

To the surprise of many, a judge convicted the town chairman and a deputy last year and sentenced them to eight months in prison. It was the first time a government official had been jailed in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for the widespread practice of making citizens work for free.

But in the end, Su Su Nway paid a bigger price. The new town chairman accused her of harassing him by shouting and swearing at him. She denied the charge, insisting, "As a Burmese Buddhist girl, I would not do such things as they said I did." But she was found guilty by a different judge of "insulting and disrupting a government official on duty." She was sentenced to 18 months.

"That this would be grounds for an intimidation case is ludicrous," said Richard Horsey, the chief representative in Myanmar of the United Nations' International Labor Organization. "She's about 5 feet tall with a heart condition. The idea that she would yell obscenities and that village leaders are going to be intimidated is highly unlikely."

In a country where much of the population has passively accepted authoritarian rule, Su Su Nway has become a standard- bearer for human rights, a young woman willing to defy the military regime that has run Myanmar for longer than she has been alive.

After taking the mayor to court, she challenged the regime further by speaking out on the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition radio service that is operated from Norway and broadcasts in Myanmar despite strict censorship laws.

"They want to send me to prison because they are afraid of me," she told the radio service shortly before her imprisonment in October. "I have no responsibility, no power and no position. They plot against a common girl, a disease sufferer, and sue her because they are afraid. If they are afraid like that, our side is winning."

With her arrest, Su Su Nway joined the more than 1,100 political prisoners in Myanmar. The best-known is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 60, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been detained for more than 10 of the last 16 years.

Su Su Nway, part of a new generation of activists, is a youth leader in Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy. Her courage in challenging the regime has won her international attention.

The Bush administration condemned Su Su Nway's detention on "trumped-up charges" and expressed concern that her heart condition was worsening in prison. Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience and issued a worldwide appeal in April on her behalf. Myanmar activists in exile and human rights groups created Web pages praising her as fearless.

"Su Su Nway's case highlights the brutality of the Burmese regime and its disregard for democratic principles and fundamental human rights," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in February. "We call on the regime to release Su Su Nway and over 1,100 political prisoners it is holding and to initiate a credible and inclusive political process that empowers the Burmese people to determine their own future."

In facing a government that rules by fear, Su Su Nway has shown uncommon courage. Horsey, who met with her before the case went to court, described her as modest in her demeanor but resolute in pursuing her claim.

"She seems quite conservative and traditional, not someone likely to hurl obscenities in the streets, for example, but very determined and driven by a strong sense of justice," said one foreigner who met her.

After winning her case against town officials, Su Su Nway realized she would face retaliation.

"I know that they are watching me every day. They are looking for my mistake," she told DVB radio. "They will come and get me anytime when they see my weakness and mistake. I will wait for them eating my rice."

Su Su Nway, who is single, said she would have no regrets about standing up to authorities. "I will stand for the truth," she said, even on the pain of imprisonment.

A resident of Htan Manaing village near Yangon, the former capital, she was the first to file a complaint under the 1999 law -- five years after it was passed. Her case opened the door for other complaints to be heard, and within months, 10 officials had been sentenced to prison for forcing citizens to work. One of those she sent to prison was her cousin.

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