The Insein Strikers Need Solidarity

More than 20 political prisoners in Burma recently started a last-resort tactic of nonviolent resistance: a hunger strike. On Saturday, 17 male inmates in Burma's Insein Prison joined at least five women who had been on a hunger strike since May 17. Addressing the inhumane conditions of prison life, the group issued six practical demands to the authorities, including adequate food, adequate clothing, basic cleanliness of living quarters, stationery and reading provisions, separate quarters from criminal inmates and basic family visitation rights.

This bold and risky move comes on the heels of a "general amnesty" for 14,600 prisoners who were freed last week by the military strongman and current president Thein Sein. The announcement, widely regarded as a human rights smokescreen, reduced prisoners' sentences by only one year, freeing inmates who were already at the end of their terms. Importantly, it only applied to 50 of over 2,000 political prisoners, many of whom are still serving sentences of up to 65 years.

Elaine Pearson at Human Rights Watch called the amnesty a "sick joke," Benjamin Zawacki at Amnesty International said it was "astonishingly insufficient" and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) denounced it as "a ploy to appease the international community." At a press conference in Bangkok on Monday, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the country, said the announcement was "not an amnesty" and that it led him to question the authorities' commitment to national reconciliation, which would require the participation of prisoners of conscience. They all hit the nail on the head.

On the very day the authorities announced the so-called amnesty, I happened to be in a remote area along the Thai-Burma border, coincidentally speaking to a former political prisoner. In a modest open-air office of several ethnic Pa-O activists, I listened as Khun Myint Tun explained his experiences in several of Burma's roughest prisons, where he was trapped for seven long years, until 2003, when his sentence concluded. With dignity and strength he recounted unthinkable suffering: cruel torture, ill treatment and squalid sub-standard conditions where disease and death were daily realities.

When asked why the authorities originally arrested him, Khun Myint Tun explained dispassionately that he was arrested "for having a book."

"Gene Sharp," he said. "I had a Burmese language copy of a book by Gene Sharp. That's why they arrested me, that's why I was in prison."

In some circles, Gene Sharp needs no introduction. He is an 83-year old American intellectual credited with inspiring non-violent democratic movements globally. His most famous book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, is a simple, eloquent and sparing 93-page conceptual guide to toppling dictatorships non-violently. Originally inspired by the political situation in military-ruled Burma, the book is available for free download in 24 languages. The New York Times describes Sharp's ideas as "fatal to the world's despots," and some say his work played a role in supporting the recent tide of democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

In his seminal work, Sharp describes hunger strikes as "aggressive actions" that, under a dictatorship, "would most likely be met with harsh repression."

In this case, he would be correct. The prison authorities in Burma have already commenced a crackdown on the Insein strikers, moving some into solitary punishment cells and transferring others to remote prisons, making it even more difficult for their families to visit them. In the past, strikers in Burma's prisons have faced lethal torture and other ill treatment, which are still a threat today.

The international community should pay close attention to the strike. Relevant U.N. bodies, ASEAN and western governments, and key oil companies operating in the country should use their offices and whatever leverage they have to carefully intervene on behalf of the strikers, pressuring Burma's new electoral authoritarian rulers to grant the strikers' demands, while also pushing for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.