YANGON, Myanmar – Courts in military-ruled Myanmar have given long prison sentences to 13 people, including a Buddhist monk, who were accused of planning bombings and other activities to disrupt upcoming elections, lawyers said Thursday.
The sentencing is the first major crackdown on dissent since campaigning officially began last week for the Nov. 7 general elections, the first in 20 years. The ruling junta is eager to promote the polls as a key step in a return to democracy after almost four decades of military rule.
However, many opposition activists are already in jail or in exile, and critics say the election rules are unfair and undemocratic. Detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party, which won a landslide victory in the last elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power by the military, has decided to boycott this year's vote.
Lawyer Myint Thaung said a special court inside Yangon's Insein prison sentenced a group of 12 people, including one woman, to prison sentences ranging from five to 23 years. He said authorities accused them of planning bombings and activities to disrupt the elections, but they were convicted on other charges including immigration law violations, links with illegal organizations and possession of arms.
Another lawyer, Khin Htay Kywe, said the monk, identified as Okkantha, was sentenced by a separate court to 15 years in prison for alleged anti-election activities and links to illegal opposition groups.
Myint Thaung said many of his clients were unfairly charged and "there was no proof" that they were planning bombings.
He said they are carpenters and construction workers who were arrested in January after a construction site boss, Kyaw Zin Lin, was arrested for allegedly planning bombings on the outskirts of Yangon.
Okkantha, a monk belonging to the ethnic Mon minority, was arrested in January in southeastern Myanmar and was charged with violating the Electronic Act, Printing and Publishing law and disrupting peace and tranquility, his lawyer said. The Electronic Act, Printing and Publishing law is a catchall statute that can be used against people who disseminate information that the government doesn't like.
"Authorities said they seized some leaflets that called for the release of political prisoners before the elections and were against the 2008 constitution. Authorities also seized a computer and camera and accused the monk of sending photos to the Mon News Agency," Khin Htay Kywe said.
The Mon News Agency is an opposition news service that operates on the border with Thailand. The constitution was written under military supervision and ensures that the army will control a large number of seats in the new parliament.
Also Thursday, a student exile group, the All Burma Federation of Student Union, condemned the arrest of six student activists who had called for a boycott of the elections, according to Mizzima, an opposition website also run by exiles.
An official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide information to the media confirmed that six university students were arrested earlier this month for distributing anti-government leaflets.