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New Lease of Life in Burma Parliament but Political Prisoners Left Behind

By Burma Partnership  •  February 9, 2016

20150330MyanmarPolice7_article_main_imageOptimism swept over Burma this past week as hopes for historic changes to the country heightened with the start of the new Parliament dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD). The beginning of this new parliament is symbolic for the fragile reform in the country as 110 of the NLD’s 390 members are, like their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, former political prisoners.

Yet, as of 9 February, 2016, 83 political prisoners remain behind bars and 399 are awaiting trial as the number of political prisoners continues to increase according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Just this past week, two high-profile student activists were slammed with additional charges for leading a series of student demonstrations against the National Education Law that ended in a violent police crackdown in Letpadan in March 2015. While the EU, who were largely criticized for their role in training the Myanmar Police Force, admitted that their efforts to train the police has not yielded any results.

Amidst the optimism, two student activists, Pyo Pyo Aung and Nada Sitt Aung, were hit with additional charges just two days after the new Parliament convened. Phyo Phyo Aung, a leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, received summons from a number of courts in Rangoon where she was indicted with additional counts of unlawful protest. She is facing over 30 criminal charges, including Article 505(b) of Burma’s Penal Code and Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act, both of which have been notoriously used to criminalize activists and human rights defenders. Nanda Sitt Aung, who was similarly summoned this week, is facing 78 charges including at least 68 counts under Article 18 in various townships where he led demonstrations, according to AAPP.

The trial for 53 student protesters and their supporters who are being detained in Tharyawaddy Prison since March 2015 has dragged on unduly, many of them facing conditions that could be life-threatening as a result of the brutal crackdown by the police during their arrest almost a year ago, and by the chronic denial of access to healthcare and treatment by prison authorities. While local civil society groups and international advocates such as Amnesty International have called for their immediate and unconditional release, and to hold those perpetrators of violence accountable, the outgoing Parliament and President Thein Sein’s Government have turned their backs on these outcries.

Meanwhile, the EU, who came under fire for their multimillion-dollar initiative to improve the Myanmar Police Force, confirmed that their training over the past two years has not led to any improvements, according to Ms. Karin Deckenbach, head of the EU’s media and civil society section. A EU trainer quoted by The Voice journal, stated that the main issue with the training is that the police force must comply with the orders of the military as opposed to international standards such as the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Under the current 2008 Constitution, the Myanmar Police Force operates under the Ministry of Home Affairs, whose ministers are appointed by the military.

Despite the admission of lack of progress and systematic reforms that are needed to address these issues that continue to dominate the security sector in Burma, the EU has pledged further funding to nationwide training for the coming five year period. In an attempt to change their training methods, the EU held a workshop on 2 February 2016 at the Green Hill Hotel, Rangoon, intending to bring together the Myanmar Police Force, the media, and civil society organizations to transform the police into a community-based police service. However, their efforts faltered again, as the key player, the Myanmar Police Force, did not participate in the workshop, once again proving the lack of will of the Ministry of Home Affairs to reform the police department.

Currently, there are no systems in place for redress for those whose rights have been violated, as the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) continues to lack independence and the judiciary remains ineffective and politically pliant. It is telling that the international commission tasked with assessing the MNHRC gave it a grade “B” status, indicating its lack of compliance with the Paris Principles – considered the essential minimum international standards for a national human rights institution to be considered credible, relevant and effective.

Without reforming the judiciary and the justice system, which is aligned with the military, the student protesters and their supporters as well as the human rights defenders facing trumped-up charges will continue to languish in jail and the persecution of activists will likely continue. The new Government must do all that it can to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, drop charges against those facing or awaiting trials and revoke abusive laws, or else it will face a dilemma of its own making. As long as the military are in control of all components of the security sector, the EU will always risk the possibility of their training and equipment being used to repress the peoples’ right to freedom of expression and assembly. The EU and the international community providing training and equipment to the security sector must disclose the procedures it uses and measures taken to ensure that their training is not contributing to further human rights violations on the ground. Otherwise, they will continue to have a hand in the shrinking of civil society space by legitimizing violent crackdowns, while offering effective tools to the Myanmar Police Force to further frighten and repress the people.

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