BURMA / MYANMAR: Rise in politically motivated arrests and charges

Burma has experienced its first democratic election in November 2015, and is going to have a newly elected civilian government this April, after half a century under military government. But, despite the historic election having taken place, peaceful protestors have continued to be subject to rights violations.

Former political prisoner Nilar Thein of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society was arrested on 24 February 2016 and detained in prison due to her participation in a protest last year. She had participated in a protest on 15 February 2015, organized to support the student protestors marching from Mandalay to Yangon, calling for amendments to the National Education Law. 

Sub-Inspector Than Win informed her in her office on 22 February 2016 that she, along with student leaders, was implicated in a case in a Mayangone Township Court, under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession law. Until that day, she didn’t have a clue that any charges had been filed against her. Mayangone Township Court issued an arrest warrant on 11 February 2016 for Nilar Thein, assuming that she was on the run. 

Another example of human rights violations continuing is in the case of activists Naw Ohn Hla, Nay Myo Zin, Ba Myint, and Than Shwe, who demonstrated in Yangon against the police killing of a protestor at the Letpadaung Copper Mine. Their protest, in December 2014, started from the Yangon City Hall and ended at the Chinese Embassy. Kyauktada, Latha Pabedan, Ahlon, and Dagon townships filed a suit against the protestors. The respective courts sentenced them to four years and eight months in prison in May 2015. Lanmadaw Township Court filed additional charges in the same case this year. New charges are being added to prolong the time in jail of those already imprisoned. 

Legally the protesters cannot face multiple charges for the same offence in different courts. In practice, it is common in Burma for peaceful protestors to face such multiple charges. Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code is commonly used and misused to prosecute the activists who are exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. 

Before the power transfer, there had been excessive arrests and prosecutions of rights activists, with regard to activities they allegedly engaged in a few years in the past. According to February 18 data of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, nearly 409 activists are awaiting trial for their political actions, and over 87 more political prisoners have been detained in Burma’s prisons. 

The Burmese government is not new to manipulating records and fabricating charges to hold persons in custody and to controlling all forms of protest against the government. The judicial process in Burma is often mere rubber-stamping of military policies rolled out as government action. And now the government has likely instructed the judges on how long persons must be detained. 

The new Parliament commenced work on 1 February 2016, and is dominated by the National League for Democracy Party, which won a landslide victory in the November 2015 election. However, the Military still plays a major role in the country; the Commander-in-Chief can still appoint personnel to the most important ministries of the country, such as ministers for Defence, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs. Currently the Myanmar Police Force, the General Administrative Department, the Prison Department, and the Bureau for Special Investigation are all lead by the Minister for Home Affairs (a Lieutenant General of the Army). And still, 25% of the seats in Parliament are reserved for military representatives, who have veto power for amendments to the Constitution. 

Systematic failure of justice institutions and lack of the rule of law will be the biggest challenges for the new government. The AHRC expresses its concern that while Burma is moving forward towards greater democracy, such kind of arrests can only delay the better future the nation and its people deserve. 

Therefore, the AHRC urges the government to release all political prisoners and drop all charges against the hundreds of activists imprisoned for their political actions.