Myanmar’s authorities have been locking up and harassing scores of peaceful activists as part of an intensifying and far-reaching crackdown ahead of November’s elections, Amnesty International said as it launched a new campaign to free prisoners of conscience Thursday. Myanmar will hold widely anticipated general elections on November 8th 2015 – the first since President Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.
The organization believes there are at least 91 prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Myanmar, although the actual number is likely to be higher. This represents a dramatic increase since a wide-ranging presidential pardon at the end of 2013 when Amnesty International was aware of just two prisoners of conscience. The clampdown has affected a range of people perceived as “threats” to the government, including human rights defenders, lawyers, opposition activists, students, trade unionists and journalists.
“Myanmar’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept. The reality on the ground could not be more different. Authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher.
A new Amnesty International briefing — Back to the old ways: A new generation of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar — exposes how repression has drastically picked up pace over the past two years, in stark contrast to official claims that not a single person is imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights.
“The numbers speak for themselves – we believe that almost 100 peaceful activists are currently detained, while hundreds more are facing charges. President Thein Sein must immediately free all prisoners of conscience and put an end to the repressive practices that fuel arbitrary arrests,” Haigh added.
The briefing documents seven cases emblematic of Myanmar’s new generation of prisoners of conscience. These include student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who is facing over nine years in prison for organizing protests in early 2015 against a new law that restricts academic freedom; and Zaw Win, a lawyer currently detained simply for using a megaphone to call for an end to judicial corruption outside a court in Mandalay Region in May 2014.
One of these prisoners of conscience is student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung. On March 10th 2015 police arrested Phyoe Phyoe Aung, leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), one of Myanmar’s largest and most well-known student movements, in the midst of a violent police crackdown on largely peaceful student protesters. She is currently detained in Tharawaddy prison in Bago Region, where she is facing a raft of politically motivated charges which could see her sentenced to over nine years in prison.
The protests had begun some months earlier, shortly after a new Education Law was adopted by Myanmar’s Parliament. Students demanded amendments, arguing that the law limited their academic freedom. In early February, student groups led by Phyoe Phyoe Aung and others organized four concurrent marches of protesters throughout the country, which were to meet in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. As the students got closer to Yangon, tensions began to rise, coming to a head on March 10th when they attempted to dismantle a police blockade. The police responded by beating the protesters with batons, including some who had fallen to the ground.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung and more than 100 other student protesters, their leaders and supporters are now facing a range of criminal charges, including taking part in an unlawful assembly; joining or continuing an unlawful assembly, knowing it has been dispersed; “rioting”; voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from his duty; and inciting the public to commit offenses “against the State or against public tranquility”.
‘’I want to be able to contribute, as a good citizen, in whatever way I can, in whatever role I have, either to build the nation, to transform the country, or to revolutionize the system,” Prisoner of conscience Phyoe Phyoe Aung said in June 2015.
Amnesty has also documented a marked surge in repression as Myanmar’s general elections, scheduled for November 8th 2015, have drawn closer. Peaceful activists have been more often charged with offences without bail so they are kept in pre-trial detention for extended periods, while prison sentences have become longer.
“Myanmar’s authorities have clearly been playing a long game ahead of the elections, with repression picking up pace at least nine months before the campaigning period started in September. Their goal has been straightforward – take ‘undesirable’ voices off the streets way ahead of the elections and make sure they’re not heard,” said Haigh.
Myanmar relies on a range of draconian laws to arrest and imprison government critics. These laws contain provisions prohibiting, among other things, unlawful assembly, “disturbing state tranquility”, and “insulting religious feelings”.
The fact that the authorities can – and do – arrest people for exercising their rights creates a climate of fear among Myanmar’s civil society.
The climate of fear is compounded through other forms of intimidation, which include a pervasive system of monitoring and harassment. Activists are subjected to constant surveillance by being followed, having their photo taken when attending events, midnight “inspections” in their offices and homes, or harassment of family members.
Many prisoners of conscience in Myanmar have faced several previous stints in jail, and are often re-arrested and handed new prison sentences shortly after being released, creating a “revolving door of repression”.
This is their message to activists: if we do something they [the authorities] don’t like, they will simply find ways to arrest us,” Thet Swe Win, Co-founder and Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, said in July 2015.
These laws place unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and must be repealed or amended to comply with international human rights law and standards, Amnesty says. As a UN member state, Myanmar has an obligation to respect human rights in accordance with the UN Charter and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR states among other things that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, as well as freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Under international human rights law any restrictions placed on the exercise of these rights must be exceptional and are permissible only if they meet three key criteria: they must be provided by law; they are only for certain specified permissible purposes, namely to protect the rights and reputation of others; national security or public safety, public order, public health, or public morals; and they must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate for that purpose.
It is clear that the laws highlighted above, under which human rights defenders and peaceful activists are criminalized and imprisoned, do not meet these criteria, Amnesty says.
The Myanmar authorities have a long history of relying on a wide range of repressive and vaguely-worded laws to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. As long as these laws remain in force, peaceful activists will continue to fear arrest and prisoners of conscience will continue to fill Myanmar’s jails.
“There is no rule of law in [Myanmar] and anyone can be arrested at any time. The laws used by the authorities to oppress political activities haven’t changed yet,” said Aung Myo Kyaw, a former prisoner of conscience and member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP-B) said in June 2015.
The repercussions go beyond those who are jailed. ‘’The family members of the prisoners of conscience also face harassment in their business and social activities… I worry about the situation of my family outside, their livelihood, as well as the prospects for the future,” said Prisoner of conscience Lu Maw Naing in June 2015.
With less than a month to go before the November general elections, Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience; drop pending charges against those who have simply exercised their human rights peacefully; and repeal or amend all laws that violate human rights.
The ongoing arrests and imprisonment of human rights defenders, political activists and other civil society members has to stop. ‘’It is time for President Thein Sein to finally deliver on his promise to release all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,’’ Amnesty says in its briefing.
Amnesty also urges the international community, which has largely relaxed pressure on Myanmar over the past two years, to step up efforts to push President Thein Sein to release all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.
“World leaders cannot take at face value Myanmar’s claims to have ended repression. The election offers a crucial opportunity for governments to make clear to Myanmar’s authorities that locking up and silencing peaceful critics is unacceptable. It’s an opportunity that mustn’t be missed,” urged Haigh.