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Using the Law as a Weapon to Silence Legitimate Protestors

By Burma Partnership  •  September 2, 2013

Letpadaung Arrest 13 Aug 2013 © Monywa Student UnionOn 13 August, Naw Ohn Hla, a leading woman activist from Rangoon, gathered in Monywa, Sagaing Region, with over 50 local villagers to call for the suspension of the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung Copper Mine and to amend the 2008 Constitution. After a tense stand-off, police moved in to arrest Naw Ohn Hla and 9 other protest leaders, forcefully pulling them into the back of police trucks. Naw Ohn Hla was seized so violently that her clothing was partially pulled off. She and the other activists are currently being held in Monywa No. 1 police station.

On 29 August, Naw Ohn Hla was found guilty of disturbing public tranquility under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor. Her lawyer said she boycotted the hearing because “she does not have faith in the judicial system.” Naw Ohn Hla remains to be tried under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for allegedly holding a protest without permission. She did in fact request official permission prior to the protest, but was refused.

Meanwhile, on 27 August, matters took a turn for the farcical: in an ironic twist, activists in Rangoon were charged under the notorious Section 18 for protesting against that very provision, in other words, for protesting the protest law. They were charged under this provision – widely used to persecute activists protesting against land grabs and human rights violations – on the grounds that they had failed to obtain a prior permit to protest from the authorities. The charge carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a fine of 30,000 kyat (US$35). On the same day, two other protestors were charged under the same law for leading a march by hundreds on 8 August to commemorate the anniversary of the brutal crackdown on the 1988 student-led pro-democracy uprising.

In a statement in January, Human Rights Watch said that authorities in Burma have used the law “to prosecute rather than protect” those exercising their basic rights, and yet Daw Aung San Auu Kyi has this week claimed that the public unintentionally violates some laws because they have difficulty following them. In fact Section 18 disregards citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and a proposal to abolish it was reportedly submitted to the Lower House in June of this year.

An independent national human rights commission would be a good start to safeguarding such basic rights. Yet, on 28 August, the Upper House of Parliament approved the National Human Rights Commission Enabling Law. As stated in Burma civil society’s recommendations, there are some positive aspects to the legislation, but some provisions pose serious threats to the commission’s independence. It is therefore vital that the Lower House and the Union Parliament reconsider the draft legislation in light of these recommendations, and enact a law that will establish a fully independent commission in line with the UN’s Paris Principles. These principles set out the minimum international standards for national human rights institutions to fulfil their role. Such independence will allow the commission to act as a proper check and balance on the executive and judiciary by investigating and speaking out on human rights violations such as the recent judicial harassment of activists.

Despite talk of reform from President Thein Sein, there are still hundreds of political prisoners in Burma’s jails, including many women activists, with more arrested each month and the repressive laws that put them in prison remaining on the books. The government of Burma must ensure that those who exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, non-violent protest and expression must be protected rather than harassed by domestic laws and state authorities, while the Parliament must amend repressive legislation as a matter of urgency. Finally, opposition political parties and the international community – and in particular the EU, which has devised a set of guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders – must denounce such judicial harassment and pressure the government of Burma to release activists such as Naw Ohn Hla immediately so that they can continue their valuable human rights work. Otherwise, there is a serious risk that continuing human rights abuses will undermine the ongoing economic and political reforms in Burma, to the detriment of its people.

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