On March 10, 2015, about 200 students marching toward Rangoon in protest of a new education law were halted by police just outside the town of Letpadan. The officers attacked the protesters with batons and sticks, taking more than 125 into custody and quashing months of peaceful demonstrations. One year later, 53 are still detained.
The students are trapped in a holding pattern marked by courtroom inertia, medical crises, and new charges retroactively tacked on to the prosecutions. Some face more than 10 years in prison under article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and several articles of the Burmese penal code. In January 2016, Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a student union leader, was handed five additional court summons for unlawful assembly, bumping the total number of charges she faces to more than 30; her co-organizer, Nanda Sitt Aung, faces over 80. And they are only two of the 412 activists across the country arbitrarily detained and facing trial for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
President Thein Sein will leave office at the end of March without fulfilling his pledge to release all political prisoners. But the detainees may have reason for hope. The National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in November saw more than a hundred former political prisoners elected to parliament, and the NLD has voiced its support for releasing detained activists nationwide. They will, however, face a major challenge in key military-controlled institutions, including the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Defense and Security Council.
On March 30, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi will attend an inauguration ceremony for the new government in the sprawling, moated parliament complex in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw. But unless the president decides to improve his legacy, 53 students will remain in the unsanitary confines of Tharawaddy prison. They will be waiting to see if the NLD can actually bring change to Burma, ensuring their immediate release and dropping charges against all political prisoners countrywide.