AMNESTY International was founded more than 50 years ago to fight for the fundamental right of freedom of expression – the freedom to hold opinions, to seek, receive and impart information and ideas without fear or interference; the right to freedom of thought and conscience.
It was also founded on the principle that ordinary people have the power to bring about great change, by coming together, speaking out and taking action against injustice.
And where better to celebrate this incredibly precious human right and harness the power of the individual than at the world’s largest arts festival. Edinburgh during August is a veritable cornucopia of ideas, opinions and words, which brings together hundreds of thousands of individuals from all walks of life.
For the last 15 years, Amnesty has joined with comedians, actors, writers, artists and festival-goers to promote freedom of expression, asking them to help us to speak out against injustice and take action for an individual whose freedom of expression has been denied.
Whilst we only highlight one “case” at the festival, this one person with a name, a family and a story, is representative of so many around the world who have been threatened, harassed, imprisoned or silenced for their words and opinions.
This year we are highlighting Burmese human rights defender and prisoner of conscience U Myint Aye, who has dedicated much of his life to speaking out for human rights and democracy in his homeland. Aged 61, he is currently serving a life sentence in prison, convicted after an unfair trial, on charges Amnesty believes to have been fabricated.
U Myint Aye has a long track record of peaceful political activism. He was imprisoned for the first time for his involvement in protests in 1974. In 2006, he was arrested after he issued a statement calling for political prisoners to be released and he was detained again in August 2007, during the Saffron Revolution, when “Generation 88” activists and Buddhist monks led mass popular protest demonstrations.
In 2008, the year of his most recent arrest, U Myint Aye had been involved in raising and distributing relief aid to survivors of cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people and left thousands homeless and destitute. At the time of his arrest, in August that year, the police searched his house and seized documents, his computer, memory sticks and the receipts for donations received by cyclone Nargis victims as well as a list of donors.
U Myint Aye was charged, however, with providing funds for a bombing that took place in Yangon. A group called the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors has claimed that they were responsible for the bombing and it is not known if the authorities investigated this claim or not.
He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment plus eight years. He is being held at a prison that is far from his family home and his wife and son.
U Myint Aye is one of many still in Burmese prisons due to peaceful political activities; and whilst 650 political prisoners have been released since May last year, including most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, those still in prison are at risk of being forgotten.
The Edinburgh Festival is one of the most fitting places to ensure that this does not happen – that we do not forget.
Every year we see the success that comes from thousands of people coming together and taking action at the festival. It is wonderful to look back and see Zarganar, a case from a few years ago, released and highlighting the plight of another prisoner of conscience. It is incredibly moving to meet Dr Binayak Sen, whose case we highlighted at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival and who travelled to Scotland earlier this year to say thank you to all those who campaigned for his release. However, unfortunately there is never a shortage of people imprisoned unjustly to choose from. We will be back at the Edinburgh Festival campaigning for someone else next year. Let’s hope that by then we can add U Myint Aye to the list of Edinburgh successes. For more information www.amnesty.org.uk/edfest. «
• Shabnum Mustapha is programme director of Amnesty International in Scotland