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Human Rights Defenders Under Attack in Burma’s Democratic Transition

By Burma Partnership  •  June 17, 2013

Warning to be shot in Letpadaung April 2013 © Han Win AungThis week, seven protesters were jailed, four villagers arrested and two social activists detained for protesting against the relocation of local communities in different areas of Burma. These events all took place in a broader context of judicial harassment and arrest of activists, especially those supporting farmers against land confiscation.

On 12 June, seven protesters were jailed, including three for one year and three months, for demonstrating without permission. The case started in August 2012 when U Sein Aung, U Aye Thein and U Win Swe Myint were arrested without warrant after staging a peaceful demonstration against streets vendors’ relocation in Mandalay. The three were charged under article 505 (b) of the Penal Code and Section 18 of the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act. They were denied bail and spent 177 days in prison including two days in solitary confinement.

Earlier this week, around 100 police officers entered Kan Bae village around Inle Lake and arrested four villagers without warrant. The arrests come after locals, whose lands were confiscated due to a hotel zoning project, plowed the lands seized by the hotel developers. Following the arrests, locals fled the village in fear of further police intervention.

In addition, authorities detained three social network activists after showing support for farmers who plowed land confiscated by the police and military in Pegu Division. They are now facing charges under the Unlawful Association Act in Nattalin Township Court.

These events, unworthy of a country transitioning towards democracy, take place in a broader context of judicial harassment, arrest and detention of activists supporting farmers against land confiscation throughout Burma and especially around the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region’s Salingyi Township. On 1 June, activist U Aung Soe from the Yangon People’s Support Network along with two farmers, Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San, were sentenced to prison terms after being held incommunicado for over one month. The trial took place behind closed doors and the three were denied legal representation and due process of law.

In addition, U Myint Aung from Save Letpadaung Mountain Committee was sentenced to one-year imprisonment with hard labor under section 18 of the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act on 6 June. Along with U Myint Aung, Ko Nway Oo Ko, deputy chairman of All Burma Federation of Student Union, ABFSU (Upper Burma) and Ko Hein Win Zaw, a chairman of Monywa University Union, were handed a 30,000 Kyat fine.

These cases will likely be the first in a long line of arbitrary arrests. In April, the Commander of the Sagaing Region Police Force announced that the police would lodge charges against eight persons for allegedly provoking demonstrations connected with the Letpadaung copper mine protests. The announcement warned that failure to provide information leading to the apprehension of these persons or harboring of them constitutes criminal offenses. In the last day, there were also reports that a warrant has been issued for the arrest of three more activists, Ko Wai Lu, Ko Moe Thway and Ko Wai Hmuu Thwin. They are wanted on charges under article 505(b) for criticizing authorities’ use of section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to keep farmers off confiscated land or other off-limit areas.

These actions are a clear attempt at discouraging human rights activists and political dissent and are a direct consequence of their roles in opposing peacefully the Letpadaung copper mine and other land confiscations. They come as evidence that in Burma’s so-called democratic transition, there is no respect for fundamental human rights such as freedom of assembly, association and expression.

As raised in an open letter to President Thein Sein released today, if Burma is to move towards a genuine democracy that equally guarantees human rights for all people, restrictions on fundamental freedoms and on human rights defenders’ work must come to an end immediately. The government, among others, must immediately and unconditionally release activists and all remaining political prisoners; cease all forms of intimidation, including arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, as well as restrictions on and charges against peaceful protesters; review all legislation identified as not being in line with international human rights norms and standards, including the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act and the Unlawful Association Act; and undertake reforms to ensure the independence, impartiality, and accountability of the judiciary.

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