BURMA/MYANMAR: Before elections, arrests

On Thursday, July 23, police in Indagaw Township in Bago (Pegu) Region of Myanmar arrested human rights defender Ma Su Su Nwe and took her to the local court, where she was remanded in custody charged with trespassing under section 447 of the Penal Code: a section of law now being used with monotonous regularity in Myanmar, or Burma, to imprison democracy activists, farmers, striking workers and others who dare to claim the right to occupy land or premises owned by the military, cronies and other powerful capitalists who for the most part have obtained their resources by force, fraud, and illicit methods.

But Su Su Nwe, who in the mid-2000s shot to prominence for suing local officials who had ordered villagers where she lived to do involuntary, unpaid labour, was not arrested and prosecuted in Indagaw for something she had just done. Rather, the charge brought against her arose from her role in September 2014 in trying to prevent violence between soldiers and villagers armed with sticks, machetes and homemade weapons in the locality, who were protesting for the return of land hitherto stolen from underneath them and fenced in by the military.

Afterwards, the officer responsible for the seized land, Captain Hein Zaw, said that he would prosecute Su Su Nwe for trespassing, but later he reportedly withdrew the threat and promised not to do so. Now, despite having retracted his threat, over half a year after the incident, Su Su Nwe finds herself in custody awaiting trial set to begin at the end of the month.

Su Su Nwe’s arrest comes just a couple of weeks after the government in Myanmar announced that national elections would be held on November 8, and just two days after it was announced that she would contest in the elections for the National League for Democracy, or NLD.

The correspondence between Su Su Nwe’s arrest on a charge arising out of events over half a year earlier and the announcement of her plan to run in the elections seems hardly likely to have been completely coincidental. Nor is she the only person who is facing criminal cases conveniently timed so as to prevent or obstruct her participation in the electoral process.

On July 10, shortly after the announcement of the November elections, a court in Mandalay Region jailed Daw Myint Myint Aye, of the Meikhtila People’s Assistance Network; Daw May Thet Oo, of the 88 Generation group; and, Daw Khin Maysi of the NLD for four months after finding them guilty of holding a public demonstration in May without authorization.

Leader of the 88 Generation, Ko Ko Gyi—who some people expect to contest in the elections for the NLD—was on July 22 also convicted of holding a demonstration without authorization and sentenced to three weeks in jail or fine. He opted for the former, but an anonymous person paid the money to keep him and a group of collaborators out of prison.

Meanwhile, cases are proceeding against student activists calling for amendment of the constitution, and against other politically active individuals.

Whether or not any strategy lies behind the growing number of prosecutions of political activists in Myanmar, or whether it is simply a case of the same old institutions of the police, prosecution and courts behaving badly as they have been habituated to do, liberally using laws designed to prevent the free expression of opinion and participation in public political life exactly as they were intended, the routinized imprisonment of political activists and human rights defenders in the lead up to the 2015 general elections hardly bodes well for the country’s nascent process of political change. It certainly offers little encouragement for people hoping and expecting that the elections could bring about significant and real reform of the sort not seen in the last five years of semi-elected quasi-civilian government.

On the contrary, it suggests the dogged persistence of the same old anti-human rights and anti-democratic attitudes and behaviours of the sort that have dominated government in Myanmar for over half a century; attitudes that while they may change superficially to accommodate new times and interests remain resolved fundamentally to prevent the likes of Ma Su Su Nwe from having their way and contributing to lasting and meaningful political change.

In view of these recent arrests, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the Government of Myanmar to demonstrate its sincerity in the electoral process by having the charge against Su Su Nwe dropped, and she and all other political detainees currently in Myanmar’s lock ups and jails released without delay, so that they might actively plan and prepare for November 8. Should it be the case that the charge against her proceeds and she along with other political activists are not released, then we will be left to presume that the authorities in Myanmar are not at all sincere about the planned election, and groups working inside the country and abroad should reconsider strategies of involvement and engagement, and calibrate their responses to put more pressure on the government to see that political detainees are freed rather than that yet another election goes ahead in Myanmar with people in prisons who would otherwise have contested it but have instead been locked up or harassed so as to deny them the opportunity they so rightly deserve.