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3rd November 2006

04112006_Funeral200.jpgIn Burma, the body politic has no heart.

No one knows exactly what happened in the moments before Thet Aung Win collapsed in the early hours of Oct. 16. He was alone in his cell in Mandalay Prison when he died, in his eighth year of fierce confinement by the same military government that had condemned him to 60 years in jail for peaceful dissent.

No inquiry will be called, no grand jury convened to investigate how this pensive, newly paralyzed man came to acquire multiple lashes across his torso. The torture he endured was brutal, according to Amnesty International, and this, in addition to the malaria and heart ailments he suffered in prison, simply pushed his 34-year-old body to its limit.

Too long a sacrifice, in Yeats's words, had turned his heart to stone.

Nor will Thet Aung Win's case appear on the front pages of major newspapers or secure even a minor mention on the network news. Burma's prisons are teeming with political prisoners-men and women who dare question the legitimacy of the military government that has ruled Burma without interruption for more than 40 years. Many are brutally tortured.

Torture, of course, is the ultimate weapon in dehumanizing and destroying human beings. As Harvard professor Elaine Scarry wrote in her landmark monograph The Body in Pain, inflicting acute pain robs a person of language-that uniquely human capacity-collapsing his world into a tiny microcosm defined by flesh, and confining spoken communication to inarticulate moans.

The torturer remains an abstraction. Like God in the Old Testament, absolute power is disembodied-in Genesis, after all, an omnipotent God speaks the world into being. A mortal body connotes vulnerability. It's significant that the single most important development in the birth of England's criminal justice system was the writ of habeas corpus-literally, 'produce the body' and explain why it's in jail.

There is nothing abstract, however, about the ways in which malevolent power in the body politic maps itself onto the body personal, often in ways that we in relatively developed and democratic countries cannot quite begin to comprehend.

Torture and execution are the most obvious examples of power run amok, and these are rife around the globe. From Lagos to Lima and everywhere in between, men and women engage in the sordid business of caging, trading, and killing one another.

But the abuses continue. Denial of basic health care is another example, possibly more sinister because the consequences are more subtle. Yet they are very real. Burma's infant, child, and maternal mortality are among the highest in the world, according to numerous international agencies. Some 70,000 children have been pressganged into military service, and the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) uprooted by war and by fiat is estimated at around 550,000: Health care is nonexistent for almost everyone in these two groups.

In a damning report in September, an unconventional group called the Backpack Health Worker Team released an 81-page report, 'Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma.' It surveyed internally displaced people in eastern Burma, where Rangoon's troops are locked in a decades-old battle with ethnic rebels.

Their report charges that the junta's policy of crippling the health and food distribution systems where ethnic minorities live has created a humanitarian crisis that places the health of the Karen and Karenni people on par with the people of war-ravaged Rwanda, Somalia, and Sierra Leone.

This, in the shadow of some of the fastest-developing economies the world has ever seen.

We know more about Thet Aung Win 's death than we will ever know about the number of people in Burma who die needlessly every year for lack of medication, immunization, or basic sanitation. These are perfect conditions for the spread of smuggled goods, drugs, humans, weapons, or pandemics such as avian flu, which respect no boundaries.

Burma at this moment is a chasm of darkness, a vast prison filled with the likes of Thet Aung Win. World leaders and international agencies should take a far closer look at Burma now, before they have no choice. Thet Aung Win has warned us.

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