Myanmar: backsliding by prosecuting human rights defenders instead of perpetrators

March 19, 2015

Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

On 18 March 2015 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar (Burma), Ms. Yanghee Lee, called on the country’s authorities to address ongoing challenges to the democratic reform process “before they undermine the success achieved so far.

I was very disturbed by reports on 10 March that excessive and disproportionate force had been used against students and other civilians and that 127 people were subsequently arrested,” Ms. Yanghee Lee said during the presentation of her first report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She welcomed the release of some detainees but also called for the immediate release of all the others. Further, Ms. Lee drew attention to the pressure on human rights defenders, including prosecutions under outdated defamation and national security laws, which have a “chilling effect on civil society activities.” I am concerned journalists are still being interrogated and arrested, and that 10 journalists were imprisoned in 2014. This needs to stop if Myanmar wants to create a meaningful democratic space,.

..More needs to be done to address the underlying issues at the heart of the conflicts, including discrimination against ethnic minorities. Four bills currently before Parliament risk increasing tension, she emphasized.

During my last visit in January 2015, I witnessed how dire the situation has remained in Rakhine state. The conditions in Muslim IDP [internally displaced persons] camps are abysmal and I received heart-breaking testimonies from Rohingya people telling me they had only two options: stay and die or leave by boat,” she said. Mrs Lee was verbally abused by a radical monk during her last visit, as reported on 21 January: 

Myanmar military - Photograph: Wikipedia

Myanmar military – Photograph: Wikipedia
On 3 February the NGO Fortify Rights came with a statement that the Myanmar authorities should stop prosecuting and threatening journalists and human rights defenders for reporting and speaking out about human rights abuses.

On 28 January, the Myanmar military threatened legal action against anyone alleging that the military is responsible for the killings of two ethnic-Kachin women on 20 January. The following day, the office of President Thein Sein directed the threat to members of the media. “We’re seeing worrying trends. Wartime violence against civilians is continuing and the Myanmar military is increasingly using the justice system as a tool to silence critics,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “The authorities should ensure swift justice for misconduct by soldiers rather than shielding them from public scrutiny and accountability.”

On 20 January, the bodies of two ethnic Kachin women in Kaungkha village, northern Shan State. Pictures from the scene show multiple stab wounds on their partially-clothed bodies, which were severely battered and bloodied. Villagers and human rights organisations alleged that soldiers from the Myanmar Army’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 503 raped and murdered the women. Military personnel reportedly sealed off access to Kaungkha village in the days following the murders and were involved in an investigation by local police into the crimes.

On 28 January, Myawady, a journal operated by the Myanmar military, published a statement citing an “ongoing investigation into the crime” and claiming the Myanmar Army “was not involved in this murder case according to evidence analysed by criminal police and other cooperating investigation teams”.

The military’s statement in Myawady went on to threaten legal action against anyone who alleges that the military— known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw — was involved in the murders, stating, “The Tatmadaw will take action based on the rule of law against those who accuse [soldiers] and write about it after the official report is released by the investigation team.” Zaw Htay, a spokesperson for the office of President Thein Sein, told the news agency, the Irrawaddy, that media outlets could face legal action if they allege military responsibility for the murders.

In the meantime, Brang Shawng, a 49-year-old ethnic Kachin man, faces two or more years in prison for filing a complaint with the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) that alleged the Myanmar Army was responsible for the death of his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing, in September 2012. Myanmar Army Major Zar Ni Min Paik initiated the legal case against Brang Shawng under Article 211 of the Myanmar Penal Code, which describes the crime of making “false charges”. Court documents specifically cite Brang Shawng’s letter to the MNHRC as the basis of the case.

In December 2014, Fortify Rights and five leading international human rights organisations sent a letter to President Thein Sein regarding the prosecution of Brang Shawng, calling for all charges to be immediately and unconditionally dropped. To date, President Thein Sein has not responded to the letter.

Myanmar: Prosecute perpetrators, not human rights defenders – ALIRAN.

2 Responses to “Myanmar: backsliding by prosecuting human rights defenders instead of perpetrators”

  1. […] “It is a failed coup,” said Yanghee Lee, co-founder of the Special Advisory Group on Myanmar and former UN special rapporteur for human rights in the country in a CNN report of 1 February. “The coup has not succeeded in the past year. And that is why they are taking even more drastic measures to finish out the coup.” He reported on problems for human rights defenders already in 2015, see:… […]

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