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Burma Army Digs Its Heels In

By Burma Partnership  •  March 15, 2016

Presidential-Nominees-1024x683Amid the attention and focus on the National League for Democracy (NLD) confirming their choices for Vice-President, and the selection of Htin Kyaw as the next President of Burma, 46 imprisoned students as well as their fellow colleagues, families and supporters outside noted a rather more sombre event – the first anniversary of the crackdown on peaceful student protesters in Letpadan, Bago Region. Meanwhile, one of the leaders of 2007’s Saffron Movement, U Gambira, was formally charged on trumped-up immigration charges after six weeks of detention, continuing the persecution he has experienced since being released from jail in 2012.

On 10 March, 2015, police initiated a violent crackdown on the column of students who had been peacefully marching from Mandalay to Rangoon to protest against the proposed National Education Law that would limit the political activity of students and restrict their academic freedom. After being blocked and kettled in Letpadan Township, north of Rangoon, for several days, police resorted to heavy-handed tactics to forcefully and violently disperse the group, while also arresting 127 students and their supporters. Documentation of the crackdown collected by Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic provides evidence that “police brutally punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs in the town of Letpadan on March 10.”

Since the crackdown, 65 other students, supporters, and those who organized solidarity protests have been arrested and face charges, three of whom are in prison. One example is Mee Mee of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, who appeared in court on 9 March, 2016 facing charges under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law in relation to a protest on 4 November, 2015 in Rangoon, demanding the amendment of the National Education Law. In a stance that reflects the complete lack of legitimacy of the charges, Mee Mee has refused to pay the fine, hire a lawyer, or make a request to leave prison, stating “their charges are unacceptable. There should be no such this charge as our country [undergoes] political reform. [Article 18] blocks our people’s desire to express themselves.”

On 10 March, 2016, U Gambira was formally charged for violations of the colonial era, Immigration Act. His lawyer, Robert San Aung, stated that no evidence has been presented of his supposed misdemeanour, while Vani Sathisan, an international legal adviser in Burma for the International Commission of Jurists, stated that proper legal procedures had not been followed, including informing U Gambira at the time of his arrest of the charges against him. U Gambira, one of the more outspoken critics of the Burma Government since he was released in 2012, has been consistently hounded by the Burma authorities, including being arrested several times. His incarceration for nearly two months without charge is particularly galling as he suffers health problems from the trauma suffered while being tortured in prison between 2007 and 2012. His therapist warned of long-term psychological problems that this current stint in prison could cause.

To add salt to the wound of this continued persecution of democracy activists is the military’s choice of US-sanctioned, Myint Swe, former Military Affairs Security Chief and current Chief Minister of Rangoon Region, as their vice-presidency pick. A renowned hardliner with links to crony businessmen, Myint Swe was Rangoon’s regional military commander when the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution occurred. As Rangoon Chief Minister he also utilized the shadowy group of thugs to violently attack demonstrators who were supporting the student protests in Rangoon a year ago. Known to be close to former regime chief, Than Shwe, by appointing such a hard-line as vice-president, the military is showing that it is not engaging in the transition to the NLD Government in good faith, providing inevitable hurdles for genuine democratic reforms.

Thus, as the world analyzes the role of the new president, Htin Kyaw, scores are being settled by the Burma authorities against those outside the ethnic struggle who have resisted the military’s power most fiercely, the popular 88 Generation activists, the leaders of the last major uprising against the regime – the monks of the Saffron Movement, and the students who so publicly defied the superficial education reforms one year ago and captured the public’s imagination. Deep-seated reform of the judiciary and striving to establish some semblance of the rule of law must be priority and yet will be a hard task for the NLD Government. With the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party Government pursuing peaceful activists right to the very end, and a deep-rooted legacy of an inefficient and politically subservient judiciary in place, the liberty of democracy activists such as Mee Mee, U Gambira, and the Leptadan students is at stake.

In the wider context of democratic reforms and transition, the placing of hardliner Myint Swe by the Burma Army into the inner workings of Government, including the powerful National Defense and Security Council, is a clear indication of the lack of political will from the Burma Army to engage in substantive change. The international community must remain vigilant in this context, and ensure that pressure continues to be applied to the Burma Army to become part of a democratic transition and national reconciliation, rather than being the major obstacle that will sour the hopes of a nation.

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