Human Rights Defenders Continue to Suffer in Burma

This article was jointly authored by Aung Khaing Min of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Khin Ohmar of Burma Partnership, and Shaivalini Parmar of Civil Rights Defenders. It was first published in The Irrawaddy on 1 August 2015.

Min Min* has been actively promoting land rights issues for over two decades. In the late 1990s she was arrested and imprisoned for her political activities, and during her detention she was subjected to torture and severe abuse at the hands of authorities. After languishing in prison for years, she was finally released. Undeterred by her experience, she continued to pursue her rights activism.

The government of Burma retaliated by arresting her oldest son, Win Naing*. He was brought into interrogation in an attempt to gather information about his mother. There, he was subjected to severe physical abuse and torture. Win Naing reported that the authorities beat him until “his teeth were knocked out of place”. His mother said that her son suffered from depression for two years following the incident.

This is not an isolated case. It reflects a tangible reality faced by numerous human rights defenders operating in Burma today. They are frequently threatened with violence, torture, abuse, and sometimes even subjected to enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing. These violations are premeditated and targeted, and as illustrated in the case above, often also affect family members and loved ones.

A new report, jointly released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and Burma Partnership, documents the challenges faced by human rights defenders across the country. Based on 75 interviews, ‘How to Defend the Defenders?’ is a sad reminder of the climate of fear among those working on human rights and social justice.

In 1998 the United Nations adopted the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, which dictates that countries have a positive obligation to protect human rights defenders and their activities. In Burma, as promises of reform have stagnated, the state apparatus is both directly and indirectly closing the space for defenders to operate safely and without fear of reprisal.

Various legislative provisions are broadly applied to unjustly arrest and detain human rights defenders. In recent years, the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law has been widely used as a tool of repression and targeted activists nationwide. While the law typically applies to mass protests, it has also been used to bring criminal charges against lone protesters. Myint Khaing* was arrested last year in Mandalay for making an innocuous call for national unity, and charged under Article 18 of the Assembly Law, a provision that requires prior permission for all acts of ‘assembly.’ He was the sole person present at the site of the alleged protest.

Both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights firmly protect the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Both also protect fair trial rights and due process in the judiciary.

As one human rights lawyer interviewed in the report noted: “Only 0.01% of cases are free. The whole judicial system is under the control of the Government. The recent events at the Letpadan court indicate that there is no rule of law. Students were summoned at night instead of during official working hours… .people don’t receive any protection from the laws, and the judges ignore them in court.” When the judiciary is either directly or indirectly implicated in persecuting human rights defenders for the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights, it will never provide those safeguards necessitated by international law.

In recent months, the democratization process in Burma has been backsliding. In these last weeks alone, we have borne witness to a state-sponsored campaign to crackdown on the very legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. The government has actively targeted student rights defenders in repeated efforts to silence any perceived criticism of the ruling administration. With over 50 students remaining in jail today on trumped up and politically motivated charges aimed at stifling any form of dissent, where is the credibility in this so-called reform process? At what point will the rhetoric of reform begin to coincide with reality on the ground?

The Burmese government should be actively working to remedy and prevent the injustices faced by human rights defenders today. This should include a commitment to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges and release from prison activists incriminated for conducting legitimate human rights activities, and an independent and impartial investigation of all cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.