Myanmar: Prisoner Amnesty Highlights the Need for Penal Code Reform

This article was originally published at The Diplomat on 5 May 2016. Available here.

A week after having released 199 political prisoners, on April 17 the Government of Myanmar released 83 additional prisoners. Among those released were student activists involved in peaceful protests against the National Education Law and Naw Ohn Hla, a land rights activist involved in demonstrations against the Chinese-backed Letpadaung Mine.

Htin Lin Oo, a writer and former National League for Democracy information officer, was also among those released. In June 2015 he had been sentenced to two years of hard labor for violating section 295(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which prohibits the deliberate and malicious outraging religious feelings. The charge emerged from a speech in which he had accused several prominent Buddhist organizations of extreme nationalism.

He was mostly referencing Myanmar’s notorious monk, U Wirathu, who has been accused of hate speech and incitement of violence against Muslims by international observers numerous times since anti-Rohingya violence erupted in 2012.

Another victim of abusive 295(a) prosecution, New Zealander Philip Blackwood was released in January. Blackwood, along with two colleagues, had been sentenced in March 2015 to two and a half years of hard labor over a psychedelic image of the Buddha wearing headphones they had used as a promotion for their bar. The court appeared to have caved to pressure from Ma Ba Tha, Wirathu’s organization, and their excessive convictions arguably contributed to the ongoing privileging of Buddhism above other religions.

Both cases are emblematic of the susceptibility of the Penal Code to manipulation that furthers discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.

Speaking on April 19, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights commended Myanmar’s new President U Htin Kyaw’s commitment to preventing “those who act legally for political causes or for their own conscience from being imprisoned.” Such commitments are positive but they also highlight the need for critical review of laws that do not conform with international standards. Because section 295(a) of the Penal Code has been used to further religious discrimination and to imprison critics of nationalist hate speech, it requires critical examination if Myanmar is to avoid institutionalizing discriminatory practices in this sensitive time of transition.

Historical Irony

There’s an unmistakable irony in that section 295(a) came about in response to the need to prohibit incitement against Muslim minorities by Hindu nationalists, yet it has become instrumentalized in contemporary Myanmar to insulate Buddhist nationalists against prosecution for incitement against Muslim minorities.

Myanmar, like other former British South Asian colonies, bases its criminal law on the Penal Code of 1860. Section 295(a) was added through legislative amendment in 1927.

In 1924, an unattributed satirical pamphlet written in Urdu titled The Promiscuous Prophet had gone on sale in bookstores in Lahore, in present day Pakistan. Responding to a copy he had been sent, Gandhi wrote, “I have asked myself what the motive possibly could be in writing or printing such a book except to inflame passions.” Sure enough, protests within the local Muslim community mounted against the publisher, who was ultimately acquitted; the judge ruled that the Penal Code did not explicitly criminalize this manner of religious hate speech. Around the same time a second case dealing with a publication that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed was brought before the Lahore High Court amid growing demands for an amendment to the Penal Code that would be more sensitive to protecting religious minorities from hate speech.

In 1927 the Government convened a legislative assembly mandated with this task.

Historian Neeti Nair explains that the legislative assembly was concerned with ensuring maximum personal liberty of expression. The assembly was in agreement that in order for speech to be prohibited, the insult to religion or outrage to religious feelings must have been the sole deliberate and conscious intention. In this the lawmakers were concerned not to punish good-faith social or historical commentary or limit attempts to challenge religious adherents in order to encourage reform. For these reasons the final text aimed to explicitly prohibit only the “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons.”

N.C. Kelkar, one of the commissioners, was less convinced that this language would be sufficient to prevent abuse. He proposed including two explanations that would have explicitly noted what is not to be considered an offense under 295(a). This included stating facts and criticism of individuals, tenets, or observances of any religion with a view to promoting social or religious reform. Kelkar was defeated in this proposal and the amendment entered into force on September 22, 1927 without exception.

Kelkar was surprisingly prescient in insisting on further clarifications. The problem in contemporary Myanmar is that the lack of precise language has allowed for the object and purpose of this section of the Penal Code to be disregarded under pressure from Buddhist nationalist forces at the expense of religious minorities and those who may have spoken in their defense.

How the court has interpreted this section of the Penal Code is inconsistent with both Burmese law and international human rights standards.

Inconsistencies with Burmese Law

The Constitution, in Article 34, recognizes the right of every citizen to the freedom of religion. As such the State should have an obligation to protect this right but the lack of transparency and failure to adhere to the law, and bias in favor of Buddhist plaintiffs, implies the courts are not upholding the equal protection of the freedom of religion.

The Constitution is actually somewhat ambiguous on this. Article 361 sets out that Myanmar recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the majority of the country while merely recognizing in Article 362 that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism were religions existing in the country at the time the Constitution took effect. From recognizing the special position of one to merely acknowledging the existence of others, it is not difficult to see where courts may be pressured to read bias into the law by politicized Buddhist organizations.

That such groups are as much political as religious should, however, raise a major Constitutional concern. Article 364 forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes. In light of Ma Ba Tha’s role in drafting the recent so-called Protection of Race and Religion laws and issuance of threats preceding the 2015 election it is clearly politicized.

While there are limited similarities with Ma Ba Tha claiming religious offence and threatening disorder with Muslim protests against offensive publications in the 1920s, the 1927 assembly was clear to differentiate between intentional offence and social reform-minded criticism such as in Htin Lin Oo’s case. Ma Ba Tha’s pressure on the court is either a willful misreading of the law or, arguably, part of a program that is more political than religious. In either case, such groups have been allowed to exert undue influence over the court due to a lack of judicial training or independence.

The most important element of 295(a) is that the accused acted with deliberate and malicious intent however courts in Myanmar have not consistently ruled on this requirement. In cases where the court has sentenced someone to prison after disregarding this fundamental requirement it has acted inconsistently and in violation of domestic law. The resulting imprisonment should therefore be considered arbitrary detention, a violation of international law.

Inconsistencies with International Standards

Equality before the law is a core human rights norm. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 8, guarantees that everyone has the right to effective remedy by a competent tribunal. Articles 10 and 11 stipulate that everyone is entitled to full equality before a fair and public trial by an independent and impartial judiciary and that nobody shall be found guilty for anything that doesn’t constitute a penal offense under national or international law. This is reiterated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The biased rulings on certain 295(a) proceedings are a far cry from the standard of equality and fairness before the law and the courts’ failure to adhere to the intent requirement violates the defendant’s right not to be found guilty for acts that do not constitute a penal offense under national law.

Failure to uphold equality before the law in these proceedings is a violation of the fundamental human right of non-discrimination, which is to be upheld at all times, under all circumstances. Although the UDHR and ICCPR don’t explicitly define discrimination, the Human Rights Committee has held that the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) provides definitional clarity and sets forth guidelines and specific State obligations. Although Myanmar is not a party to CERD, the Convention offers guidance on eliminating discrimination that the new Burmese Government should consider embracing.

CERD explicitly deals with racial discrimination but this can arguably be extended to other forms of discrimination pertinent to section 295(a) and broader Penal Code reform. Article 2 holds that States shall take effective measures to review governmental policies and to amend or repeal laws that allow for discrimination.

Article 4 continues that States shall prohibit organizations that promote or incite discrimination and should not permit public officials or institutions to promote or incite discrimination. The State and courts’ tacit acceptance of Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist Buddhist organizations have contributed to an emboldening and permissive atmosphere for discrimination in favor of Buddhism over other religions. Public officials and institutions are ultimately responsible for the selective implementation of section 295(a), and as such their behavior appears to be in violation of obligations outlined by CERD.

The Human Rights Committee has provided commentary on such implementation in noting that “laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religious or belief systems, or their adherents over another” are impermissible as are laws that “prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine or tenets of faith” as long as they do not constitute incitement.

It is clear from the commentary of the 1927 assembly that the commissioners hoped to preserve the freedom of opinion and expression, which the Human Rights Committee has called “the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.” It is so fundamental that international human rights law only permits for limited restrictions, laid out  in ICCPR Article 20, namely propaganda for war and advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. The object and purpose of section 295(a) appears to conform with international law in this sense, but selective prosecution has amounted to an undue restriction on the freedom of expression.

During the Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar before the Human Rights Council in November 2015, several States including Norway, Turkey, France, and Nigeria made recommendations that Myanmar address the spread of discrimination and incitement against ethnic and religious minorities and enact laws to this effect. Myanmar ultimately rejected most such recommendations claiming they “are contrary to the situation on the ground.” This rejection, however, falls flat in the face of evidence otherwise.

Time for Penal Code Reform

During the follow-up session to the Universal Periodic Review on March 17, 2016, Myanmar’s Representative U Maung Wai remarked that, “as things are changing, and changing in the right direction in the country, a window of opportunity may arise to revisit these recommendations in the future.”

If President U Htin Kyaw is to be taken seriously on his commitment that those who act legally of their own conscience will no longer be imprisoned and if the new Government is sincere in promoting human rights moving forward, it is time for them to see the window of opportunity as wide open. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the same statement mentioned above, has been clear that it is ready to provide expertise to the Burmese Government to reform those laws that do not conform with international standards. Beginning with a review of the Penal Code would be a good start.

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The Truth About Myanmar’s New Discriminatory Laws

This article was originally published 26 August 2015 at The Diplomat. Available here.

Last Thursday, Myanmar’s parliament approved the remaining two of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago prefers to call them the “Race and Religion Discrimination bills.” Their passage—which would allow local governments to impose a host of repressive measures—comes at a time of ongoing racial and religious discrimination and violence, part of a concerning trend in systematic Rohingya persecution. It is only more alarming as it coincides with the widespread disenfranchisement of previously registered Rohingya voters, including former parliamentarian U Shwe Maung.

These bills are inconsistent with international norms and standards and represent a clear violation of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Myanmar is a party to both conventions. The bills are likely to not only legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment but also provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of Rohingya.

The package of laws has been a long time coming. They were first proposed following the establishment of the nationalist Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, which presented them as a draft to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. In December 2014, the laws were tabled for parliamentary debate beginning in January. Civil society and the international human rights community campaigned against their adoption and encouraged the Government of Myanmar to observe its human rights obligations rather than succumbing to nationalist hysteria.

Despite such concerns, in May the Population Control Healthcare Bill was the first to be approved. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee cautioned that the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills “risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar.”

The bill grants regional officials the ability to establish 36-month birth spacing for target groups. The bill lacks human rights safeguards and raises serious concerns for abuse against Rohingya Muslims, who have already been subjected to decades of similarly abusive local orders.

Muslim couples that wish to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take years to secure and require bribes. The Two Child Policy requires them to sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children, under threat of fine or imprisonment. The policy has led to amateur abortions that threaten women’s lives, influenced the number of women refugees, and led to the birth of blacklisted children who may never be registered, explains Engy Abdelkader, an expert on freedom of religion with the OSCE. The CRC requires birth registration and establishes the right to a nationality and identity, noting that the state is obligated to ensure these rights “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”

The desire to control Muslim populations in Myanmar comes from the widespread belief in the Buddhist-majority country that Muslim communities have exceedingly high birthrates and are planning a population takeover. However, as Abdelkader points out, based on official government data, researchers at Harvard University have revealed that Rohingya actually have one of the country’s lowest population growth rates. Unconvinced by such data, Ma Ba Tha founder and ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu continues to infuse his Buddhist millenarian sermons with narratives of Muslim population growth, and the forced conversion or widespread rape of Buddhist women.

In July, parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, which requires Buddhist women and men from other religions who wish to marry to register their intention publicly. They may only get married if there are no objections. It will apply retroactively to existing unions who must register as interfaith marriages. This violates the universally recognized rights to marriage and privacy, as well as equal protection of the law by applying only to Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. It is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.

The justification for protecting Buddhist women in marriage appears to arise from a gender discriminatory narrative that equates women with purity and assigns a patriarchal society with the task of protecting a Buddhist women’s purity at the expense of her agency.

In August, parliament approved the final two bills, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill. The conversion bill requires anyone who chooses to change their religion to apply with a district level “Registration Board,” submit to an interview and a 90-day waiting period. Such restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freely have or adopt religion. It is an assault on privacy, also found in the monogamy bill, which targets religious minorities who are often seen as sexual deviants.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least the most recent bills are still awaiting final signature by President Thein Sein. As the November election approaches he will likely come under increasing pressure, along with the rest of his USDP Party, from Ma Ba Tha to enact them into law.

Throughout the drafting period and especially once the package of bills was introduced to parliament, Ma Ba Tha was active in campaigning for their enactment. In October, U Wirathu organized thousands in Mandalay to demand the passage of the bills. May Sabai Phyu, a human rights defender and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, revealed that Ma Ba Tha challenged parliamentarians who did not approve the bills. Senior monks told their congregations not to vote for those who did not support the bills. Some critics were labeled “traitors” and at least four civil society leaders reported receiving death threats.

Article 364 of Myanmar’s Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes, and several sections of the Penal Code criminalize deliberate assaults on religious feelings and the incitement of hatred or violence against racial or religious groups. However, there has been no investigation into these activities.

One problem that remains seemingly unanswered, as pointed out by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, is whether and how the bills would apply to non-citizens. This is a particular concern for the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship and subjected to unofficial discriminatory local orders for decades.

When asked whether non-citizens living in the country would be burdened with the requirements under the religious conversion or the marriage bill, U Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, merely stated “that it is a very complicated thing, which the state must consider carefully.” The inability of the national human rights commission to conclusively dissuade concerns that the law would disproportionately target non-citizens raises serious concerns about implementation.

For Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights defender and founder of Women Peace Network Arakan, there is little uncertainty. For her, the central government’s intent with the adoption of the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills is precisely to legalize discrimination.

Against Letpadaung: copper mining in Myanmar and the struggle for human rights

 This article was originally published at OpenDemocracy on 3 August 2015. Available here.

Credit: http://www.e-paolive.net/galleries/images/misc/2012/12/Bur-protest-1-Dec.jpg (All rights reserved).

The Letpadaung copper mine in the Sagaing Region of central Myanmar has become a major fault line in the struggle for human rights in that country. It is also emblematic of a global problem: the damage caused by exploitative resource extraction coupled with impunity for state violence.

Although the complex which houses the mine is some 20 years old, it has attracted increasing resistance since Myanmar began its ostensible transition away from strict military rule in 2011. Fed up with massive forced relocation and environmental degradation, residents have taken advantage of gradual political liberalization to begin staging demonstrations at the mine. But state brutality promptly tramples these actions, including at least one police assault on civil resisters — civilians — using military weapons. Abusive state officials have escaped prosecution while activists have been sentenced for exercising their fundamental rights.

Contention around the project — and especially police treatment of those engaging in nonviolent civil resistance to put an end to it — has grown into a real challenge for President Thein Sein’s rhetoric of civilian government and the development of rule of law. How the situation is eventually resolved will be a serious barometer for democratic transition in Myanmar.

But already its unraveling has revealed the potential for several innovations in rights defense in Myanmar. These innovations include increasing regional networking to facilitate deeper exchange between human rights defenders in neighbouring countries engaged in similar struggles, and developing more sophisticated advocacy and lobbying skills for drawing on the support of the international community. Domestic civil resistance can benefit both from the development of a culture of litigation and from a stronger network of professional human rights lawyers.

How civil resistance and litigation converged

Thein Sein, President of Myanmar. Demotix/Alexander Widding. All rights reserved.

Following a police crackdown on several hundred monks, students and farmers nonviolently protesting the Letpadaung mine in November 2012, an independent investigation by a group of Burmese lawyers and the US-based human rights organization Justice Trust revealed that the police had used white phosphorous grenades against the nonviolent resisters — a chemical weapon of complicated legality under international law. The monks, many shielding the other protesters, suffered the worst injuries: deep burns and lasting pain. “There was something specific about the particular fire,” one of the monk organizers, U Teikkha Nyana, told a group organized by several human rights organizations at Harvard Law School this past April.

This assault strengthened the ties between two groups — civil resisters and human rights lawyers — that have become increasingly inseparable fronts in the struggle for democratic transition in Myanmar. With modest political liberalization, and a generally decreased risk of lengthy prison terms, more Burmese lawyers are willing to take on potentially sensitive rights cases.

Following long periods of hospitalization, victims of the violent repression were finally in a place to embark upon the challenge of holding perpetrators accountable. On 11 March 2015, a group of monks led by U Teikkha Nyana filed criminal and civil suits against Home Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko, who ordered the crackdown, and others. The case is a “fight for justice and to highlight human rights violations and the lack of rule of law in Myanmar,” Aung Thein, a lawyer involved with the case, explained to me at the same meeting in April.

Monks have become increasingly common litigants in Myanmar, although sometimes causing major polemics such as the ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu. Civil resistance can help weaker groups increase their leverage over oppressors, while rights lawyers can serve to both maintain activists’ legitimacy and offer some protection against arbitrary abuse. Legal procedures force the state to articulate its persecution in legal terms. When the state clumsily insists on the legality of arbitrary persecution of civil resisters, for example, it often produces a backfire effect and further delegitimizes the state’s position.

On 24 March, the monks’ charges against the Home Minister and police were rejected on the grounds that no lawsuit can be filed against officials who are operating in good faith — a blow to hopes of institutionalizing accountability. Nevertheless, I have been told further legal challenges are likely to follow.

Meanwhile, protests spread as repression intensifies

Police violently evict farmers working near Letpadaung copper mine in 2013. Flickr/Han Win Aung. Some rights reserved.

Despite the police crackdown, demonstrations continued at Letpadaung and began to swell around the country as others joined in solidarity, directing their resistance toward the Chinese companies involved in exploitative environmental projects in Myanmar.

Small outbursts at the Chinese embassy in Yangon have continued since November 2013, the one-year anniversary of the violent crackdown on monks. At that time, Tin Htut Paing, a leader of the youth movement Generation Wave, burned a Chinese flag in front of the embassy. He was charged with violating Myanmar’s Penal Code and the Law on Peaceful Assembly and detained.

The next year, demonstrating with the “Black Campaign” students, Tin Htut Paing was arrested again for protesting outside of the embassy along with five others. His lawyer Robert San Aung explained that the six protesters were being charged disproportionately for exercising their freedom of expression.

The group of activists was convicted and sentenced to four years and four months in a May 2015 trial condemned by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva based organization that promotes human rights through the rule of law, and others. Amnesty International called for their immediate and unconditional release while others asserted that the convictions seriously tainted the legal system in Myanmar.

Naw Ohn Hla, one of the women convicted, said she would continue to fight for others’ rights as soon as she is freed but assumed that the government deliberately gave them lengthy sentences to keep them imprisoned during the countrywide general elections in November 2015. The next day, the court added hard labour to the sentence.

Strategic opening for international diffusion

Myanmar protestors in Yangon. Demotix/Manaw Htun. All rights reserved.

The mine at Letpadaung is a joint venture between Wanbao, a subsidiary of Norinco, a Chinese industrial manufacturing company that also specializes in high-tech weapons, and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company. This is a reminder of the important role foreign firms and governments play in developing or hindering the rule of law in Myanmar. This is not just about China.

A 2015 Amnesty International report criticized the Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines, now Turquoise Hill Resources, and others for profiting from a corrupt or unregulated legal climate for resource extraction in Myanmar.

Ivanhoe Mines was involved in the Monywa Complex since the joint venture began in 1996. Between April 2003 and January 2005, it may have violated Canadian, US, and European sanctions for large amounts of copper sales to blacklisted military firms.  Amnesty has called for Canadian authorities and the securities commission to investigate.

In 2007, Ivanhoe Mines claimed that it was divesting from the Burmese mine and transferred its shares to an “independent third party,” the independence of which has been contested by Amnesty.

A 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks shows Ivanhoe was simultaneously negotiating with Burmese and Chinese buyers but was eventually forced to sell to the Burmese state-owned ME-1 for $100 million, on the grounds that ME-1 had already agreed to sell the mine to the Chinese interest for $250 million plus $50 million in consulting fees and $100 million in upgrades. The sale was finalized in 2011.

Turquoise Hill is currently invested in two mining projects in Mongolia. In May 2015, a deal to sell its shares in the underperforming SouthGobi Mine to a Chinese firm fell through. Meanwhile the company has faced domestic opposition at another of its mine sites. Noted in a recent report by the Minority Rights Group, the Oyu Tolgoi Mine has sparked resistance by local herders, environmental and minority rights groups over the destructive impact of the mine on the surrounding landscape. The parallels to Letpadaung don’t need elaboration.

In their 2015 World Report, Human Rights Watch commented on the “enormous collective impact on the human rights of vulnerable communities worldwide” of Canada’s mining industry. HRW expressed concern that the Canadian government neither regulates nor monitors the respect for human rights of Canadian firms overseas. In 2009, Canada did establish a corporate social responsibility advisory, but has yet to empower it with oversight or investigatory powers over Canadian firms operating domestically or in foreign countries, such as Myanmar.

Broadening resistance strategies

Myanmar will continue to open up to more foreign trade and investment in the coming years. And the government is currently in the process of negotiating a contentious Investment Law. In early July, ICJ hosted a workshop with Myanmar’s Attorney General and others to discuss the investment law and protection of human rights in the country. Daniel Aguirre, ICJ Legal Adviser, commented that, “Myanmar needs to update its regulatory system to protect the environment and human rights.”

At the same time, civil society and human rights defenders may consider updating their strategies of resistance and rights defense. A targeted boycott of foreign-made products from host countries responsible for exploitive industries is one possible next step for national coordination of resistance. Increasing civil society pressure on the political and financial elite of select countries has its limits, as long as Myanmar protects elite interests over those of Myanmar citizens. Resistance to exploitative foreign involvement will require improving transnational activism and communication with activists engaged in similar struggles abroad. Ideally, it would also entail coordinating with networks of human rights defenders in countries whose foreign presence is targeted by civil resisters in Myanmar. This requires financial and logistical support.

International funders interested in supporting rule of law development in Myanmar will play an important role in regional exchange. Organizations like Amnesty and Frontline Defenders have long provided platforms for this type of exchange, but the demand is growing. Imagine the learning potential of combining activists and lawyers who have struggled against Letpadaung with their Mongolian counterparts who have resisted Oyu Tolgoi, or with the organizers of the thousands of Tibetans who have resisted the destruction of sacred or farming land by mining operations across western China. There are other transferable case studies for Myanmar from rights defenders around the world, such as Oscar Olivera who organized the successful resistance campaign against exploitive privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia by the US construction firm Bechtel.

The upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar in November, wherein the Human Rights Council will review Myanmar on the totality of its human rights record, presents an opportunity for rights defenders from Myanmar and around the world. It might also provide a platform for putting pressure on other governments to examine their human rights records in Myanmar.

The UPR is a truly unique opportunity for universalizing domestic rights campaigns and forging links with supportive foreign governments. Unfortunately, reports indicate Home Minister Ko Ko will lead Myanmar’s delegation, seriously calling into question the country’s commitment to the process.

Building bridges to broaden tactics of nonviolent resistance

Protesting outside of embassies or burning country flags draws attention but is insufficient for sustainable coalition formation. To guarantee greater accountability for foreign companies operating in Myanmar, and the state officials tasked with protecting the interests of the local and international elite, domestic human rights defenders can target their activism at those firms’ countries of origin and strengthen their networks among human rights defenders in those countries. To complement these efforts, foreign governments with embassies in Myanmar can ensure they are accessible for civil society and guarantee they will not prioritize economic or political alignment with the elite at the expense of substantive commitments to human rights and the rule of law. But international action can only augment domestic mobilization; it cannot replace it.

In the narrative above we see the importance of bridging nonviolent civil resistance with the community of human rights lawyers. While the rule of law is barely poking through the soil in Myanmar, the country has made limited advances in terms of domestic and international law. While such concessions may be more to placate the international community toward abandoning sanctions and stimulating investment, they have created openings for challenging oppression. Addressing resistance to Letpadaung, Ant Maung, a popular poet, commented, “Five years ago this would have been impossible; such a movement would have been cruelly crushed.”

Myanmar has a long way to go but, as Aung Thein noted at our meeting in April, it is time to nurture a domestic culture of litigation. Belief in the rule of law must come from below and strategic litigation should be calculated alongside other tactics of resistance. Through greater training, made increasingly possible by support from international organizations, Myanmar civil society will gain more rights awareness, allowing for more informed rights demands.

At the same time, just as the international community must perform due diligence when supporting top-down initiatives or large-scale investment, it must be cautious in supporting bottom-up programming. Sitting in his apartment in Yangon, Robert San Aung, the idiosyncratic human rights lawyer and six-time political prisoner under the ancien régime, shared his concern with me. Entrepreneurs have emerged to take advantage of legal aid and development funds, just as in other contexts of post-conflict or development, which is upsetting the network of nascent domestic lawyers. For San Aung, funders truly interested in supporting human rights in Myanmar must ensure checks and balances, which can be achieved through deeper engagement on the ground, meaning more language officers and interactions with civil society.

Arguably the way forward for rights defenders in Myanmar is to continue augmenting domestic rights defense with transnational activism and international law, and to continue finding ways to take advantage of the same international opening that has benefited the government.

In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.