BURMA: Criminalization of rights defenders and impunity for police
The Asian Human Rights Commission condemns in the strongest terms the announcement of the commander of the Sagaing Region Police Force, Myanmar, that the police will arrest and charge eight human rights defenders whom it blames for inciting protests against the army-backed copper mine project at the Letpadaung Hills, in Monywa. The commission also condemns the latest round of needless police violence against demonstrators there.
According to an undated announcement just issued by the regional commander of the Myanmar Police Force, a copy of which the AHRC has obtained, the police will lodge charges against eight persons for allegedly provoking demonstrations and other supposedly illegal actions. The persons named include six members of the Yangon People's Support Network: Ko Aung Soe (14 charges), Ba Htoo (9 charges), Thar Kyi (6 charges), Ko Latt (8 charges), Thaw Zin (5 charges) and Ko Thu (1 charge). The other two persons are Han Win Aung of the Political Prisoners Families' Beneficial Network (5 charges) and Thaung Taik Oo of the Yangon Institute of Technology Students Union (18 charges).
The announcement goes on to warn that failure to provide information leading to the apprehension of these persons or harbouring of them constitute criminal offenses. These sections of the announcement are clearly intended as direct threats to the local population that if anyone is hiding or protecting any of these persons and the police find out, then they also could wind up in custody.
According to news reports, Aung Soe is already in detention, following the latest heavy handed police violence in response to protests by farmers on April 23, 24 and 25, when some entered their land and began tilling in deliberate violation of orders imposed to deny them access to the land in favour of the copper mine owners: the army's holding company and a foreign partner firm. He is reportedly being held with two other demonstrators at the Nyaungbingyi Police Station.
The announcement by the Sagaing Region police is just the latest illustration of how far authorities are prepared to stray from the supposedly democratic path that they claim to be treading, in order to protect the interests of crony businesses and ensure continued impunity for the police in their handling of the Letpadaung mine affair.
None of the persons named in the announcement are criminals. All of them are doing no more than exercising what they correctly understand to be democratic rights to freedom of assembly and expression. All they are doing is asking that the rights of the occupants of the affected land be respected accordingly, and that they be treated as partners in dialogue rather than as the subjects of decisions made from above, as in the days of direct military government.
The police, on the other hand, have among their ranks people who committed criminal offenses when they fired on encamped protestors with incendiary weapons, as discussed in a report posted on the AHRC website: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/press-releases/AHRC-PRL-007-2013. Regrettably, the government's official commission of inquiry failed utterly in its responsibility to call for prosecutions of these policemen, and any further action, beyond internal disciplinary inquiries, seems highly unlikely.
Thus we have the perverse--but for people of Burma unfortunately all too familiar--scenario of people innocent of anything other than a desire to work for the good of their country being made into fugitives, while police who are guilty of crimes pursue them. And we have the all too familiar scenario of people who are in fact responsible for provoking violence--the cronies and their collaborators in government--sitting back and enjoying police protection while ordinary citizens are pursued as provocateurs.
The Asian Human Rights Commission calls for the retraction of this announcement by the Sagaing Region Police Force and the dropping of charges against the persons named. It calls for the release from custody of those detained following the latest police violence. It calls, again, for criminal investigations and prosecutions of police officers and others responsible for the attacks on demonstrators at Letpadaung.
Finally, and above all, the AHRC calls for the idea of democracy, democratic rights and dialogue to be taken seriously in dealing with the issues presented by the people affected by the mine at Letpadaung. This is not a matter of insulting people by chucking some money and telling them to clear off, as if the fact of payment is a dramatic improvement on the days of old when the army did not bother even with that much. Rather, it is a matter of treating people as equals. Manifestly, this basic element of democratic practice has not yet been grasped in even its most rudimentary form by the officials responsible for the handling of this issue, and consequently until such a time as it is, the violence, disputes and protests will continue.