(Bangkok) – Authorities in Burma should drop charges against activists who participated in peaceful protests against government policies, Human Rights Watch said today. Nine peace activists now face criminal charges for demonstrating in Rangoon without a permit on September 21, 2012, International Peace Day. Anti-mining protesters and land rights activists elsewhere in Burma have also been subject to intimidation and prosecution.
“The government’s prosecution of peaceful demonstrators reveals troubling limits on Burma’s respect for basic rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Burma’s leaders may be saying the right things at global forums and in bilateral talks, but their reform rhetoric rings hollow on the streets and in the fields where protesters assemble.”
The Burmese government should promptly amend the 2011 Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession to conform with international human rights standards, including eliminating prison terms for permit violations, Human Rights Watch said.
Since September, the authorities have denied protest applications on spurious grounds in Rangoon and Monywa, violently cracked down on anti-mining protests near Monywa in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Division, and used the peaceful assembly law to prosecute rather than protect those exercising their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said. More recently, police refused to issue a permit for an assembly scheduled to take place on January 10 in Myitkina, the capital of Kachin state, to mark the 65th anniversary of Kachin State Day.
Thirteen activists who participated with over 1,000 others in a September 21 march in Rangoon calling for peace in Burma’s war-torn Kachin State have been repeatedly summoned to local police stations and courts on charges they violated section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires a permit for demonstrations. Two of the accused told Human Rights Watch that since September they have had to appear at more than 30 court hearings in multiple Rangoon townships.
“It’s been two and half months and we have visited the courts more than 30 times already,” said one activist. “There are costs involved, like transportation, but the delaying of our day to-day lives and work impacts us more than money. There is a lot of stress and tension. I have to balance my work, the court schedules, and my family life, and it is very difficult."
The activists face up to one year in prison in each of the 10 townships through which the peace march passed. On October 24, the Dagon Township court rejected the activists’ request that charges in various courts be consolidated and heard in only one court. They are now awaiting a decision on the same request from two district courts. The refusal by prosecutors to consolidate the case into one court proceeding, sparing the defendants from making multiple trips to various courts over an extended period of time, constitutes harassment and undermines the right of defendants to adequately defend themselves.
The government has also used excessive force against protesters. Early on November 29, 2012, at Letpaudaung in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Division, government security forces forcibly dispersed six camps of protesters, including Buddhist monks, opposing the expansion of the controversial Monywa copper mine. Several protesters were arrested, and at least 40 were injured, including many with serious burns. The authorities also arrested anti-mining protesters in Rangoon: six were arrested in Rangoon on November 26, some of whom were charged with sedition, inciting unrest, and disturbing the peace; two others were arrested on December 2 protesting the November 29 crackdown.
On December 15, Minister Hla Tun from the president’s office publicly apologized for the authorities’ actions on November 29. President Thein Sein also appointed a commission to investigate the mine expansion but failed to provide it with a mandate to investigate unnecessary use of force by the police. No one has been disciplined or charged for the violence against the protesters, and the charges against the Rangoon protesters still stand.
“A government apology and an investigative commission for the burning of the anti-mining protesters’ camps is a good start, but it will mean nothing without results,” said Robertson. “Foreign governments and corporations should insist on full accountability and legal reforms to ensure such incidents don’t happen again.”
Human Rights Watch said the Peaceful Assembly Law has been used in other cases to quash peaceful protest. On October 8 the authorities arrested several workers gathered outside the Taw Win furniture factory in Rangoon to call for improved working conditions. Seven have been charged with violating article 18 for demonstrating without a permit. Similar arrests happened to six factory-level union leaders who gathered outside a government labor office to protest working conditions at the Myu and Su garment factory in Rangoon.
The Peaceful Assembly Law was signed by Thein Sein on December 2, 2011, amid fanfare and praise from several Western governments. While the law ostensibly accepts the right to peaceful assembly, its provisions make it a criminal offense to give speeches that contain “false information,” say anything that could hurt the state, or do anything that “causes fear,” a disturbance, or blocks roads, vehicles, or pedestrians. Convictions can result in sentences of up to two years and a 50,000 Kyat [$60] fine.
International human rights law, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Any legal restrictions on basic freedoms should be clearly and narrowly identified, strictly necessary, and proportionate. Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law makes the right to freedom of assembly subject to vague and overbroad restrictions at the full discretion of the authorities, and some violations call for disproportionate sentences under the law, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Burmese government evidently needs a mental reset to recognize that peaceful protests make for a vibrant democracy,” said Robertson. “Burma should have laws that encourage peaceful assembly and authorities who understand and respect it.”