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BURMA: Former activist monk and demonstrators among detainees in wave of arrests

December 6, 2012

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-199-2012

6 December 2012
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BURMA: Former activist monk and demonstrators among detainees in wave of arrests

ISSUES: Arbitrary arrest and detention; human rights defenders; rule of law
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AHRC WEBSITE: BURMA PAGE
http://www.humanrights.asia/countries/burma

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Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission is concerned by a recent wave of arrests in Burma, signaling that continuation of repressive practices from earlier periods of direct military rule. Among those arrested are a number of leaders of recent demonstrations against a copper mining project in the north of the country, and a former monk who after his release from prison at the start of the year has been subjected to constant harassment and abuse. We are calling for the release of all these persons who have done nothing other than exercise their rights to participate in social life at a time that the government of Burma claims to be democratizing.

CASE NARRATIVE:

In recent days authorities in Burma have carried out a wave of arrests of human rights activists, including leaders of protests against a copper mine in the north of the country, at the Letpadaung Mountain range (see AHRC-STM-246-2012), and a former monk who led antigovernment protests in 2007.

Villagers in Letpadaung began action against the expansion of copper mining in the region in July 2012. As people in other parts of the country have learned about their struggle they have also joined in calls for the mine operation--which is a joint venture of an army-owned conglomerate and a foreign company--to be halted, on grounds that it displaces local villagers and pollutes the environment. At the end of November, protests against the operation spread to cities, including Rangoon, Mandalay, Monywa, Pakokku and Magwe.

Although the draconian 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Marching Law requires that people organizing rallies submit requests for approval with extensive details of persons who will assemble, reasons for assembling and texts of speeches that will be given, the demonstrators declined to obtain these permits on grounds that they should not be required to obtain permission to assemble and march peacefully on human rights issues.

Simultaneously with a violent police assault on protestors encamped in areas nearby the mine site that left dozens of monks and civilians hospitalized, which obtained international news media attention, on 29 November 2012 police in Rangoon arrested six leaders of one rally in support of the anti-mine demonstrators. The six include Naw Ohn Hla, who led a prayer campaign for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in earlier years. On December 3, two more protest leaders, Ko Moe Thwe and Ko Aung Soe, were also detained. The demonstrators have been charged with offences against public tranquility under the Penal Code and have been transferred to prisons.

The AHRC is receiving reports of arrests in other parts of the country for similar "unauthorized" protests. Among them, four shopkeepers were reportedly imprisoned in Kachin State for taking footage of a demonstration over the relocation of a marketplace.

Meanwhile, police in Rangoon have also arrested and charged a former monk, U Gambira, known by the layperson's name Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin, for attempting previously to reopen monasteries that were closed following the 2007 monk-led protests, of which he was at the forefront. According to information available to the AHRC, around 15 police came to arrest the former monk at his home, after which his family was told that he was sent to the central prison. However, when they went to the prison they were also told that he was not there.

After release from prison in January 2012, Gambira was denied residency at any monastery, whereupon in an attempt to remain a monk he entered the premises of a number temples closed since the 2007 events. It is over those alleged trespasses that he has reportedly been charged. He was later forced to disrobe because he could not find anywhere to reside as a monk.

Further details are provided in the sample letter below.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

The AHRC has issued a number of statements on the Letpadaung copper mine protests, and is following the issue closely. More details and commentary can be found on the Burma page of the AHRC website: http://www.humanrights.asia/countries/burma .

Among cases on the website are a number of interventions concerning the case of U Gambira, who was released in January 2012 after being imprisoned for his role in the 2007 antigovernment protests (AHRC-UAU-004-2012). Gambira suffered brutal torture in detention and in October 2011 the AHRC also issued an open letter expressing concern for his health while in prison (AHRC-OLT-013-2011). Since his release he has been subjected to constant harassment, as the AHRC reported previously (AHRC-UAC-044-2012).

Naw Ohn Hla has also been subjected to repeated legal action and other forms of harassment over a number of years for leading a prayer campaign to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. See: AS-266-2007.

REQUESTED ACTION:

Please call for the release from detention of all persons detained in recent weeks for doing no more than exercising their fundamental human rights, which the government of Burma claims to now be respecting. Please note that for the purposes of the letter Burma is referred to by its official name of Myanmar, and Rangoon as Yangon.

Please be informed that the AHRC is writing separate letters to the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, as well as to the regional human rights office for Southeast Asia calling for interventions into this case.

SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear ___________,

MYANMAR: Release arrested rights activists

I am extremely disappointed to hear that in recent days human rights defenders in Myanmar have been arrested for no more than exercising the fundamental rights that the government of Myanmar claims to now be respecting, in contrast to its predecessor. Arrests of this sort bespeak the continuance of authoritarian practices from earlier periods and do not bode well for Myanmar's democratization. I call for the release of all these persons. Among them I want to draw attention to the following cases.

Simultaneously with a violent police assault on protestors encamped in areas nearby the Letpadaung Mountains copper mine site, which left dozens of monks and civilians hospitalized and obtained international news media attention, on 29 November 2012 police in Yangon arrested six leaders of one rally in support of the anti-mine demonstrators, including Naw Ohn Hla. On December 3, two more protest leaders, Ko Moe Thwe and Ko Aung Soe, were also detained. The demonstrators have been charged with offences against public tranquility under sections 500 and 505(b) of the Penal Code and have been transferred to prisons.

I am aware that the demonstrators were required under the draconian 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Marching Law to obtain permission for these assemblies; however, I reject the contents of this law and the onus that it places on demonstrators as contrary to fundamental human rights principles, and support the rights of these persons to assemble and express their views peacefully without requiring that they submit extensive documentation to the police and obtain prior approval for their actions.

I am also aware that even if their demonstrations constituted an offence under that law then they ought to have been charged accordingly, and not under the sections of the Penal Code, which apply only to situations in which public safety is endangered, and which constitute more severe offences with more serious penalties.

Additionally, I want to express my concern about the circumstances of a former monk, U Gambira, known by the layperson's name Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin, who was reportedly arrested for attempting to reopen monasteries that were closed following the 2007 protests of which he was at the forefront. According to information I have received, around 15 police led by the commander of the Thingangyun Township Police Station, Inspector Than Zaw Oo, came to arrest the former monk at the beginning of December 2012.

U Gambira having disrobed because he could not find any temple in which to reside had been staying at home quietly with his family when arrested. The police said that he has been charged under sections 447, 448 and 454 of the Penal Code with trespass, for attempting to reopen and occupy monastic premises in three townships closed after the 2007 protests, following his release from prison in January 2012. According to the police, the order for his arrest "came from above" but they did not say from where.

Gambira is a victim of extreme forms of torture who is continuing to suffer physical and mental ailments as a consequence of his previous incarceration and treatment. His re-imprisonment is an act that demonstrates the extreme insensitivity of the authorities in Myanmar to the incidence of torture and its aftermath. Furthermore, the charges brought against him now are completely incomprehensible, given that he had not continued to attempt to enter and reside in monasteries after he disrobed.

According to Gambira's family, after his arrest the contacted police as to his whereabouts and were told that he had been transferred to Insein Central Prison, but when they went to the prison staff at the gate said that he was not inside.

I call for the immediate and unconditional release of U Gambira, Naw Ohn Hla, Ko Moe Thwe, Ko Aung Soe and all other persons detained in recent days in this spate of arrests of human rights activists and supporters. I urge the government of Myanmar that if it is sincere about its democratization process, it cease and desist from this sort of behaviour that is a reflection not of an administration looking forward, but of one looking backwards.

Yours sincerely,

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PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. U Thein Sein
President of Myanmar
President Office
Office No.18
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR

2. U Hla Min
Minister for Home Affairs
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +95 67 412 439

3. Dr. Tun Shin
Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General
Office No. 25
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 404 088/ 090/ 092/ 094/ 097
Fax: +95 67 404 146/ 106

4. U Kyaw Kyaw Htun
Director General
Myanmar Police Force
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +95 1 549 663 / 549 208

5. U Win Mra
Chairman
Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
27 Pyay Road
Hlaing Township
Yangon
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 1 659668
Fax: +95 1 659668

6. Ko Ko Hlaing
Chief Political Advisor
Office of the President
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel-+95 1 532 501 ext-605 / 654 668
Fax-+95 1 532 500, 654 668

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (ua@ahrc.asia)

Document Type :
Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID :
AHRC-UAC-199-2012
Countries :
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.