Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

February 16, 2010

Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

As demonstrated most dramatically during the Saffron Revolution and in the opposition to the 2008 constitutional referendum, political challenges to the Myanmar government are not confined to the ethnic Burmans or the urban and central regions. The diverse composition of the political opposition is reflected in the make-up and leadership of the NLD and other political groups. The opposition is diverse and widespread. Ethnic minorities have always seen themselves as having a critical stake in the political structure and situation in Myanmar--not least in the protection of their own separate and collective interests--and have asserted themselves accordingly. The authorities, no more secure with political opposition in the ethnic minority states than in Yangon, have responded with repression.


3.1 The Rakhine and the Saffron Revolution


The Saffron Revolution was an expression of both economic and political grievances. It was supported by both monks and lay people, and significantly, not only started in an ethnic minority state but was very active in others as well. It was a country-wide series of protests, which resulted in country-wide repression. Violations included extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labour.


Amnesty International was able to obtain an extensive number of accounts on and from Rakhine activists, including new information on their role during the Saffron Revolution and previously undocumented testimonies about the ensuing government crackdown. The findings reveal violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations, leading in some cases to deaths; arbitrary arrests and imprisonment; and surveillance and harassment of activists. The first monks to take to the streets during the Saffron Revolution--in the first such major demonstration by monks anywhere in Myanmar since 1990--were in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State: on 28 August 2007, approximately 300 Rakhine monks decided to march and chant a metta sutra ("loving kindness" discourse), blazing the trail for thousands more all over the country. This section focuses on the role of Rakhine political activists in the Saffron Revolution.


Their activism was sparked by the government's decision on 15 August to drastically increase domestic fuel prices, sparking large protests that month spearheaded by the 88 Generation Students group. Dependent on lay persons for their daily alms, but also traditional providers of education and both religious and socio-economic refuge for their devotees, the monks were profoundly affected. When, on 17 September, the government failed to apologize for an attack on monks by security forces in Pakkoku in Magway Division twelve days previously, monks took mass action. For the next nine days--following the lead set in Rakhine but soon covering all of Myanmar's seven ethnic minority states and seven divisions--thousands of monks joined lay persons in marching peacefully in at least 66 towns and cities and 227 districts. 36 They refused to accept alms from government officials and soldiers, and called for a reduction in fuel and commodity prices, the release of all political prisoners, and the commencement of meaningful dialogue with the democratic opposition. 37