Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned about the reported arrests in Burma of 220 members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), including 60 elected members of parliament. According to the NLD, the arrest of democracy supporters began in the capital of Rangoon in the late hours of Sunday evening, September 6, and continued through Monday and Tuesday in provincial areas as well. As yet, no charges have been reported against those detained, and the party's leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not so far been detained. Human Rights Watch has also received reports that elected members of parliament from smaller ethnic nationality parties have also been detained.
The latest round of arrests heralds a major new clampdown by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which could lead to the eventual banning of the NLD altogether. Lt-Gen. Khin Nyunt of the SPDC last month labelled the NLD as "obstructionists with evil intentions".
Human Rights Watch called on Japan, the European Union and members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose foreign ministers are due to meet in New York on September 23-24, to condemn the arrests and urge Burma to take concrete steps as recommended by the U.N. this past April, including "all appropriate measures to allow all citizens to participate freely in the political process...and to permit them to participate in a meaningful process of national reconciliation."
"We urge the Burmese government to comply fully with the recommendations of the United Nations by releasing immediately and unconditionally all those detained for political reasons, and to stop the harassment of the NLD," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Increased repression will only create continued instability and lead to Burma's further isolation internationally."
The present crackdown comes at a time of deteriorating conditions within the country. Intermittent student demonstrations in Rangoon have been broken up by riot police over the past two weeks, while tight restrictions on freedom of association and movement are being enforced on NLD officials as well as foreign visitors and journalists. During August, over 20 foreigners were reported to have been deported for their contacts or sympathies with pro-democracy groups within Burma.
However, the trigger for the present arrests appears to have been the NLD's call to convene a "people's parliament" in line with the 1990 election results. An NLD deadline of August 21 for the convening of the parliament was allowed to pass by the military government. But by making such sweeping arrests now, the SPDC is clearly attempting to prevent the NLD and democratic ethnic minority parties from holding any large-scale gatherings.
Just last month the state-controlled media announced several times that the SPDC was willing to talk to the NLD; at the SPDC's invitation, two meetings were held between senior government officials and NLD leaders, including NLD party chairman U Aung Shwe. However, at the month's end, the SPDC appeared to close the door to further meetings, and in particular to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that a threatening commentary in the state-controlled media today called for her deportation from Burma for "sedition" and representing foreign interests.
Human Rights Watch urged the SPDC to release the 220 who have been arrested as well as all other NLD supporters and ethnic minority politicians who have been detained for their membership of political parties or for peaceful expression of their political beliefs. In addition, the SPDC should lift all restrictions on freedom of association and movement, in particular those which inhibit the functioning of democratic parties. Any attempt by the SPDC to ban the NLD or other democratic parties would represent a serious escalation in the political crisis within Burma. In particular, the threat to deport Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a grave attack on individual human rights and must immediately be removed.