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Release Jailed Human Rights Defenders and Activists in Myanmar

YANGON, BURMA - JANUARY 23: A Myanmar flag blows in the wind downtown on January 23, 2020 in Yangon, Burma. Today the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to prevent genocide against the Rohingya. The ICJ unanimously decided the the Myanmar government must take measures to ensure justice and provide reports every six months until the case closes. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
“It’s deeply alarming that the authorities are continuing to use repressive laws to arrest and detain activists and journalists amid a global pandemic.” – Clare Algar

Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have overseen the continuing harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of human rights defenders and activists since coming to power in Myanmar four years ago, Amnesty International said in a new briefing published today.

The organization calls on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, drop all charges against those facing imprisonment solely for their peaceful activities, and urgently amend or repeal the longstanding repressive laws used to jail human rights defenders, activists and critics.

“Four years after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, Myanmar remains a country where the slightest criticism of the authorities can land you in jail. Environmental activists, poets and students are among those who have been arrested and prosecuted simply for expressing their opinions,” said Clare Algar, Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy.

“After campaigning for human rights for decades and paying a high price for their own activism, it is shocking that Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have done so little to change military-era laws that are still being used to repress and punish critics.”

The new briefing, “I will not surrender”: The criminalization of human rights defenders and activists in Myanmar, features 16 cases of human rights defenders and civil society activists who have been arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned in the last 18 months. They include students, a journalist, satirical performers, an environmental activist, a labour rights activist and trade union members, and a Buddhist monk, in cases that span nine States and Regions across Myanmar.

Athan, a local civil society group, estimates that 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019 alone.

Critics targeted under repressive laws

In many cases the complainants were military officers, who used Myanmar’s repressive laws to bring charges against people who criticized members of the armed forces.

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has faced increasing international scrutiny over atrocities it committed against the mainly Muslim Rohingya population from August 2017 onwards.

Myanmar’s military continues to wield significant power, including in Parliament. However, it is the National League for Democracy (NLD) that holds a parliamentary majority and has the means to review and repeal repressive laws. Some problematic laws were abolished in the early days of the administration, but others are still being used to prosecute critics on politically motivated grounds. These laws should be amended or repealed to bring them in line with international human rights standards.

“The Tatmadaw’s continuing power and influence in Myanmar is not in doubt,” said Clare Algar.

“But there are serious questions about the civilian government’s willingness to make reforms, respect human rights and protect people from repression, harassment and arbitrary arrests.”

There were some positive steps in the early years of the NLD-led administration, with scores of prisoners of conscience released and some abusive laws repealed. But politically motivated arrests have continued, and the pace of promised human rights reforms has decreased. Alarmingly, such arrests have continued even as the authorities grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s deeply alarming that the authorities are continuing to use repressive laws to arrest and detain activists and journalists amid a global pandemic. This has to stop. We call on the authorities to immediately institute a moratorium on the use of such law. No one should be arrested or imprisoned under these laws until such time as they can be repealed or amended in line with international human rights standards,” said Clare Algar.

Students and performers jailed

Just last month, five student activists were imprisoned for protesting against a government-imposed internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States, western Myanmar. Two others are in hiding, fearful of arrest and imprisonment under similar charges. The internet shutdown remains in effect, despite authorities confirming a COVID-19 outbreak in recent weeks. The shutdown will hinder people’s access to important information about the pandemic.

The authorities have justified shutting down internet access because of intense fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group.

The briefing also features young members of the “Peacock Generation”, a poetry troupe who perform a traditional form of satire called Thangyat. Thangyat is a popular traditional art form in Myanmar, which fuses poetry, comedy, satire, and music, and is usually performed during the New Year water festival in April and other festive occasions.

During their performances in 2019, members of the group wore military uniforms and criticized the Myanmar military. Shortly afterward, members of the military began targeting the group with criminal complaints.  Seven members of the group were arrested in April and May that year.

Today, six members of the group are behind bars, serving prison sentences of between two and three years in Yangon’s Insein prison.

“The relentless targeting of the Peacock Generation performers clearly shows how vindictive the Myanmar military can be. But by failing to amend or repeal repressive laws like the ones used to detain these young activists, the NLD-led government is giving the military the tools it needs to crack down on dissenting voices,” said Clare Algar.

Environmental activist and journalist targeted, now in hiding

Police are investigating environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe after he helped a local community in Kayin State, southeastern Myanmar to raise its concerns about the environmental and social impacts of a local cement factory.

He has been charged with “incitement” and is currently in hiding, fearful of arrest. He faces up to two years in prison if found guilty.

Meanwhile Aung Marm Oo, editor of Development Media Group (DMG), a news agency that has been reporting on war crimes during the conflict between the Myanmar military and the AA, is facing five years in jail. He stands accused of violating Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act, a repressive law often used to target the country’s ethnic minorities.

In early May 2019 Aung Marm Oo went into hiding after learning of the charge against him in another media outlet. Soon after, police officers, including from Special Branch, visited his offices and home, interrogating his family members and staff.

Aung Marm Oo remains in hiding more than 10 months later. In late March, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications directed all telecommunications operators in Myanmar to block access to DMG’s website, together with others accused of disseminating “fake news”.

Promised reforms desperately needed before upcoming elections

As Myanmar prepares for elections currently scheduled for November 2020, Amnesty International urges the authorities – both the NLD-led government and the military – to stop harassing human rights defenders, activists and critics. They should also ensure necessary reforms so that everyone in Myanmar can freely exercise their human rights including their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“After a half-century of military rule, many people expected that Myanmar’s 2015 elections would represent a historic opportunity to reform longstanding repressive laws. But so far, the government has failed to make good on its promises for change,” said Clare Algar.

“Without genuine and meaningful reforms, more people will be harassed, intimidated and sent to jail simply for speaking their minds – especially if they highlight injustice, abusive laws, or war crimes and other human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw.”