On 8 June 2013 the Myanmar Journalists Network hosted a press conference in Rangoon about the imprisonment without right to defence of at least seven persons who have been actively opposing the Letpadaung Hills copper mine project, in Monywa District, Sagaing Region, where police on the night of 29 November 2012 broke up encamped protestors by firing incendiary devices into their shelters, causing extensive burning and other injuries. Although no action has been against the police involved, so far seven human rights defenders have themselves been imprisoned after trials reminiscent of the days before political reforms in Burma, trials in which they have been denied access to legal documents or a right to defence.
The seven are Ko Nwe Oo Ko, vice chairman of the All Burma Student Union, Upper Burma working committee; Hein Zaw Win, chairman, and Ko Htin Sha Pyi Hlyan Oo, secretary, University Students Union (Monywa); U Myint Aung, secretary of the Letpadaung Hills Rescue Committee; and, Ko Aung Soe, Yangon People’s Support Network and two other locals on whose case the AHRC has commented previously (AHRC-STM-082-2013).
The police have in making these arrests acted with complete disregard for law. The regional and district commanders have issued announcements saying that they have issued arrest warrants for the arrest of various people on various charges, which are enumerated but not stated. The AHRC has obtained copies of some of these documents. They are absent of police seals, reference numbers or other standard procedural requirements and basically just constitute written assertions that the police have authority to do as they want, and to threaten people that those who fail to cooperate will also be in trouble. Furthermore, according to a lawyer who has been working on the Letpadaung cases, U Wai Lu, who spoke at the press conference in Rangoon, people who have been imprisoned have not been able to get sight of any documentary evidence that arrest warrants were issued against them, or other evidence presented to the courts to prove that they are guilty of anything.
Wai Lu added that in Myint Aung’s case, he has been jailed for a year on a charge that ordinarily would attract a penalty of no more than a month. Aung Soe they had heard had been given a year but on what charge and by what court they do not know. Nor is his current place of detention known.
The manner in which these people have been arrested, tried, charged and imprisoned speaks to the continued use of the courts as political tools in Burma for the pursuit of people whom the authorities find to be politically inconvenient. And the Letpadaung case, although a high-profile one, is in this respect in no way isolated. Relatives of farmers involved in a melee over land with police in Ma-ubin District in the delta region west of Rangoon have also reported that their loved ones have been called away for questioning by police and have not returned home, but nor have they been informed of charges or the detained persons’ whereabouts.
One reason that the police in Letpadaung feel emboldened to do as they please is that they have gotten away with committing egregious forms of violence on local people thanks to the failure of a presidential commission of inquiry into the copper mining project to hold them to account, as the AHRC has indicated previously (AHRC-STM-073-2013). The failure is on at least two counts.
First of all, the commission whitewashed the police violence against protestors and failed to make any recommendations that action be taken against the officers involved. Nor did it give any meaningful or useful suggestions regarding police abuses, making some generic recommendations about training that are empty of contents and lacking in evidence of serious thought or attentiveness to the problem.
Secondly, the commission treated the matter of lands forcibly taken from local people for the mining project since the 1970s as essentially a financial matter, and therefore a question for compensation, rather than a matter of rights. Yet for many and perhaps most of those dispossessed, given the scale of the resistance to the mine project from local villagers, the question rests on the recognition of their rights to occupy and cultivate land, and-in a period in which the government of Burma claims to be democratising-to have their voices heard. By treating the issue as one of financial compensation, the commission completely missed the point, and in so doing, encouraged continued actions against opponents of the mine.
The inquiry members, and above all, its chairwoman, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, still have an opportunity to set things right. Urgently, they should speak out actively and assertively against the imprisonment of human rights defenders and others who have mobilized to oppose the mine in accordance with what they legitimately believe are their rights in a purportedly democratising country. These people must be released at once. The police operation against them, which is unlawful, given the absence of any attempt to anchor it in correct procedures, must cease. Furthermore, they should reconsider and retract their recommendations made in their official report, and instead of giving the green light to an operation that rides roughshod over the interests and desires of the people most affected, call for extensive consultations that take into account all views and concerns-not in the piecemeal and insincere manner of the commission, but in a frank and genuine manner consistent with the practices of a forward-looking and democratising country, not one still mired in the militarised mentalities and behaviour of its recent past.