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The Persecution Goes On With Nowhere to Seek Justice

By Burma Partnership  •  March 23, 2015

3-18-2015-HRC28-forum-asiaThe persecution of the students and their supporters shows no sign of abating as around a hundred are still locked up and others are in hiding as authorities hunt them down. Meanwhile their supporters are being intimidated across Burma by intelligence unit, Special Branch, as well as administration and immigration authorities. Perhaps fittingly, this was occurring while the Special Rapporteur on the situation on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, was giving her report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where she highlighted “continuing challenges indicating worrying signs of backtracking on key human rights issues.” We must thank Ms. Yanghee Lee for bringing the multitude of human rights abuses to the attention of the member states in a comprehensive report, especially in the light of the sexist abuse she has been subjected to by extremist monks in Burma.

Of over 100 students and supporters arrested and imprisoned after a brutal crackdown by police and hired thugs in Letpadan, Pegu Region on 10 March 2015, around eighty remain in Tharyawaddy prison. While 127 is the official number of arrests on March 10, there were at least 10 more arrested following the Letpadan crackdown in Rangoon, Dawei, and the Irrawaddy area. Families have been denied access to visit their sons and daughters, with guards refusing to let them in to speak to them or deliver basic items, nor do they receive regular updates on their health. Furthermore, some are still in hiding as the authorities are searching houses using the 2012 enacted, “Ward or Village Tract Inspection Law.” This law, highlighted by Fortify Rights this week in their report, “Midnight Intrusions: Ending Guest Registration and Household Inspections in Myanmar” stipulates that homeowners need to register any house guests with local authorities. This gives the police carte blanche to enter any persons home at any time, superficially to conduct a periodic household inspection. It is used to target political activists and is being used now in their hunt for the students in hiding.

Meanwhile, a white armband campaign that started as a solidarity protest against the violent crackdowns by police on the students has been subject to surveillance and bullying by the Special Branch intelligence service. Student leaders have spoken of being followed by Special Branch officers in Rangoon and Mandalay, their activities recorded, and intimidation of the people whom the white armbands had been handed to. Ms. Yanghee Lee also brought the activities and intimidation by intelligence services to the HRC, stating that “human rights defenders faced regular surveillance and monitoring and that some are imprisoned….this has a chilling effect on civil society activities.”

But the Special Branch cannot control the actions of the groundswell of support that the students have received throughout the world. The #wesupportmyanmarstudents campaign has seen thousands of people take photographs of themselves and posting them online, expressing their solidarity, while street protests in countries as diverse as US, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, Finland, Korea, India, Australia and Norway have also occurred.

It is not just the students and their supporters who are being intimidated. The day before the crackdown in Rangoon on March 5, the same groups of thugs, with the police, violently broke up garment factory workers’ strikes and other demonstrations in Rangoon’s industrial zones arresting 14 workers. Court hearings have begun for those arrested, yet the authorities have opted for a closed court, thus denying access for families and colleagues of the defendants.

It has also been revealed that the South Korean Embassy urged the Burma Government to end the strikes, concerned at the financial losses that the South Korean factory owners would experience. Concerns over how South Korean companies take advantage of lax labor rights frameworks in Burma was highlighted by a network of South Korean human rights, labor, environmental, and public law organizations, (Korean Transnational Corporations Watch) in a letter to Ms. Lee sent just before the crackdown on the workers. This is not the role that the international community should be playing. Encouraging the Burma Government to end peaceful protests in any way possible, whether that be violence or otherwise, severely implicates the South Korean Government in the human rights abuses that we have seen so many times inflicted upon peaceful demonstrators. These include violations of the right to freedom of assembly and expression, the right to liberty, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, committed by all levels of authority in Burma.

The Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva right now, and UN member states need to look closely at the situation in Burma, to see the violence, the intimidation, the bullying, and the persecution through unjust legislation, as evidenced by the brutal crackdowns on garment factory workers and students, and ensure that a strong resolution is passed that reflects the realities of the human rights abuses committed by authorities.

We call on the Burma Government to immediately and unconditionally release all students, garment factory workers, and their supporters and stop the intimidation of those still exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression on the streets. We call also on Rangoon-based diplomatic corps to not remain silent, but to be proactive and speak out. They should be pressuring the Burma Government to comply with the guidelines and principles that they themselves have designed, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, as well as fulfilling their own responsibilities under these guidelines. Thus proving that they are working to protect the people of Burma, such as the students and workers, who are struggling so hard to defend their rights.

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