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Following Vicious Student Crackdowns, EU Must Stop Training Thugs

By Burma Partnership  •  March 16, 2015

Burma has once again been in the international headlines for all the wrong reasons. Rather than making headlines for, say, realizing a sustainable peace settlement between the Burma authorities and the country’s various ethnic nationalities, or blazing a trail with genuine political reforms in the lead-up to supposedly historic and seminal general elections, Burma has reverted to type. On 10 March 2015 police launched a violent and cold-blooded crackdown on student activists in Letpadan, Bago Region, brutally assaulting students, monks, ambulance workers and journalists, and arresting scores more. Their “crime” – protesting against the undemocratic National Education Law. The same day, another group of protestors was forcibly dispersed in Rangoon. Their “crime” – protesting against the violence in Letpadan.

The grim details tell a shocking story of callousness, cruelty and chaos: medical workers beaten by police through the open doors of ambulances as they attended to the wounded; journalists attacked and arrested for recording police violence, despite wearing press badges to identify themselves; students hit with batons and stamped upon even after they had been detained; monks arrested merely for supporting the student protestors and giving them sanctuary in the Aungmyay Beikman monastery in Letpadan; and protestors dragged out of houses where they had been sheltering from the violence and arrested by police going around the local area door-to-door.

The fall-out over the last few days since the 10 March crackdown has only exacerbated the anger, fear and confusion that has now descended on Burma once again. Monks have come out to denounce government claims – lies – that they apologized for their actions and promised not to engage in any political activities again in the future. Furthermore, while some of the potentially hundreds of students and supporters arrested in Letpadan (the official figure is 127) have since been released from prison, many are still detained, with the Ministry of Information vowing to “take action” against the “masterminds” of the student protests.

Such language betrays the mindset of the Burma Government: it sees the students and anyone who supports them as criminals, simply because they are questioning government policies and actions – in this case regarding educational reform. This attitude is not only dangerous, immoral and undemocratic, but also completely delusional and illegal: in fact, by ensuring that their protests passed off peacefully, the students stayed on the right side of international law. They were merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 19 and 20, respectively) and protected by the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Articles 19 and 21) – just like many protestors over the past three years, including workers protesting against unfair wages and working conditions and farmers protesting against their land being grabbed. Any unreasonable steps to restrict freedom of expression and assembly are illegal, while any violence perpetrated by the police only serves to further criminalize the authorities. The police and the government should be in the dock; not innocent students, monks and journalists.

Such violence on the part of the Burma authorities is not new: even since the so-called political reforms in 2011, protests around the country have seen repressive crackdowns, with people arrested, threatened, beaten and shot at. What is particularly unsettling in this case is that the Burma police have received training from the EU – as well as reportedly being sold anti-riot and crowd control equipment by the UK. Although the EU and UK condemned the crackdown in the usual diplomatic language of tutting expressions of “great concern,” as Burma Campaign UK have said, these muted responses in the face of serious human rights violations are actually of greater concern.

At best the EU’s actions are having no positive effect whatsoever and, at worst, they are arming thugs and turning them into a more effective tool of violence and repression. Indeed, the police deputy chief of Bago Region even claimed that the crackdown was in line with EU training. Such training is being flagrantly abused, and must be halted immediately, despite the EU’s disingenuous argument that the violence only proves that training is still needed. Unless there is real political reform in Burma, and genuine civilian oversight of the security forces, then it is a huge and dangerous gamble to equip or train them.

International human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released scathing statements condemning the “excessive force” of the crackdowns and calling for the officials involved to be punished, while civil society organizations from around the world have urged the Burma Government to cease assaulting and arresting students and their supporters.

It is evident that the darkness of violence, fear and repression has returned to Burma – if indeed it ever left. Large question marks now hang over several vital issues: Why does the Burma Government insist on approving the use of excessive force on peaceful protestors? Does this violence have any connection with the upcoming constitutional referendum and/or elections? Will the referendum and elections go ahead without any further violence? Who controls Burma’s police? Have the political reforms completely unwound? Why is the international community not doing more? Why does the NLD seem so impotent? What will the students and their supporters do next? 2015 could go in any direction, but the answers to these questions will surely come. After this week though, people could be forgiven for feeling somewhat pessimistic.

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