JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Myanmar's military regime handed down harsh prison sentences to 14 pro-democracy activists Tuesday, a slap in the face to the United Nations and foreign governments that have demanded reforms from the ruling generals.
Some of the activists were sentenced to 65-year terms after being found guilty of rallying opposition to the junta a year ago, when a sharp rise in government-controlled fuel prices set off a wave of street protests. The military opened fire on demonstrators and arrested several thousand, in a brutal crackdown that the U.N. says left at least 31 people dead.
The severe punishment is a foreign policy defeat for the outgoing Bush administration. First Lady Laura Bush has campaigned for democratic reform in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Her comments on the junta's hard line have been broadcast to Myanmar by the Voice of America, a popular shortwave service among Burmese hungry for information that challenges official propaganda.
"It's no secret that Burma's military rulers show no respect for law, but these last few weeks show a more concentrated crackdown on dissent clearly aimed at intimidating the population," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "These peaceful activists should not be on trial in the first place, let alone thrown in prison for years after unfair trials.
"Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms," Pearson said.
The activists sentenced Tuesday were members of the 88 Generation Students group, which led weeks of protests in 1988 that the armed forces crushed by killing an estimated 3,000 people.
In last year's protests, Buddhist monks took the most prominent role in leading what began as peaceful marches through several cities. Junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, a highly superstitious man known to consult astrologers before making key decisions, is believed to fear the spiritual power of the country's most outspoken senior monks, as well as their popularity among the people.
Members of 88 Generation Students and other lay opponents have suffered the brunt of the junta's wrath. In recent weeks, the regime intensified its crackdown against the group and the National League for Democracy, headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate lives under house arrest.
Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, failed again during a visit in August to squeeze any significant concessions from the regime.
It was his fourth visit since the junta crushed the demonstrations last fall, and few people in Myanmar have any hope that the generals will listen to his arguments that they must negotiate with Suu Kyi for a real transition to democracy.