The Asian Human Rights Commission has in a number of recent appeals and statements (AHRC-UAC-105-2013, AHRC-UAC-101-2013, AHRC-STM-108-2013) pointed to the persistent pursuit and prosecution by the police and local authorities in Burma, or Myanmar, of human rights defenders under draconian legislation old and new. Despite the country’s continued progress away from its overtly dictatorial past, it is as yet unclear as to whether it is headed towards a genuinely democratic future, or towards one in which a new type of hybrid authoritarianism enables western governments to sit comfortably at the diplomatic table with its leadership, while at home rights defenders and democratic activists suffer persecution, and ordinary people still experience the types of inequities and injustices heaped upon them over the last couple of decades of military government.
Among recent cases that have come to the attention of the AHRC, at the end of August, Naw Ohn Hla, an activist who has been campaigning against the expansion of the military-backed copper mining operation at the Letpadaung Hills, received a two-year sentence under section 505(b) of the Penal Code–a generic, anti-democratic provision enabling the police to lodge charges against someone for pretty much any undefined public act which they construe as likely to cause alarm. The section was a favourite among police during the years of military rule, and that it continues to be used in the current period of political change is an indictment on the concerned authorities and an illustration of how practices entrenched in institutions throughout decades of military rule continue to circulate freely through those institutions into the current period. Ohn Hla for her part protested against the charge by refusing to cooperate with the court inquiry on the grounds that she was doing no more than exercising democratic rights in organising protests to oppose the mine.
In another case on which the AHRC has obtained detailed documentation, five men and one woman (Zaw Htun, Ko Kyaw Swe, Ko Aung Moe Kyaw a.k.a. Ko Poe Phyu, Ko Win Hlaing, Ko Than Htay Aung, and Ma Gyu Gyu a.k.a. Ma Gyun) were charged under section 18 of the odious Right to Peaceful Assembly and Marching Law 2011. Passed in the period of legislative government following the end of military rule, contrary to its title and as proven in practices over the last two years, far from enabling the exercise of rights to assemble and demonstrate the law does precisely the opposite by requiring people to request permission for events from local police stations, who can arbitrarily approve or decline such assemblies as they see fit. The section is quickly becoming notorious as more and more people who are declined permits to rally-without rhyme or reason-and then do so nonetheless are prosecuted. In this case, police in Pyay have brought the charges against the six accused for allegedly organising peacefully held rallies in April and May 2012 to call for 24-hour electricity supply. During August, the court also found all of these accused guilty and ordered they pay fines. The accused have objected that, as in Ohn Hla’s case, they were doing no more than exercising their democratic rights, and that they are innocent of any offence.
In contrast to these incidents involving activists and human rights defenders, police issue permits or tacitly allow the holding of rallies that have as a direct purpose the provocation of disturbances and violence. The recent visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar to the country was met with such rallies at a number of points. At Meikhtila, in the north, thousands of people rallied with t-shirts emblazoned with the rapporteur’s face struck out, and without any apparent attempt on the part of the authorities to take action against alleged organisers. As the rapporteur’s vehicle passed through the town it was set upon by protestors. Luckily, the numbers assembled at the time were far fewer than earlier in the day, and no serious injuries or damage was caused. Nonetheless, the manner in which these events passed off in contrast to those in which organisers have been prosecuted is a stark reminder of past events and incidents in years of military rule, when mobs had been used on more than one occasion to attack individuals and groups whom governments deemed their opponents.
If the government of Myanmar is as serious as it says that it is about political reform, about the release of political prisoners, and about other measures to put its authoritarian legacy behind it, then it needs to begin by bringing to a halt the wanton prosecution of human rights defenders like Naw Ohn Hla, and Zaw Htun and his peers. It needs to repeal laws like section 505(b) and the law purporting to enable rights to people to assemble peacefully. And above all, it needs to do much more to alter systematically the practices and mentalities of administrators, police officers and other officials accustomed to shutting down any public activity not directly under their control or given their approval. Democratic life is about people acting and talking according to ideas that government officials sometimes will not like. If on every occasion they see or hear something they do not like the authorities in Myanmar respond to it with prosecution, then democratic life in the country will remain a figment.