The brutal crackdown on a student led protest against the provisions of the new National Education Law was just the latest attempt by the government of Myanmar to keep control of the political reform process and the pre-election agenda that threatens to escape their iron grip. Students are protesting against the establishment of an Education Council which would control the curriculum without any consultation with or participation by students.
The response of the international community, and in particular the EU, has been extremely weak. The EU has been involved in providing training to the Myanmar police, officially with a view to ensuring that police responses to security situations are in line with international human rights standards. Ironically while the EU were loudly claiming that none of the police they had trained were involved in the crackdown, the police themselves were claiming that the techniques they had used against the demonstrators had been learned during the EU training.
However what surprised most observers was not the crackdown itself but rather the level of violence involved and the subsequent determination of the authorites to proceed with prosecutions. The students are charged with obstructing traffic and participating in an unauthorised assembly. Initially 125 protesters, including many students were arrested ,of whom 81 were charged. A further 11 were released on bail and the remaining 70 are being held in pre-trial detention. All 81 who have been charged are students, members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), a clear sign of the government's intention to strike hard at the ABFSU. Given that in the first hearing it took lawyers more than a day to question one of the 42 witnesses for the prosecution it is estimated that the trial will take up to 3 years to complete.
In addition to the time spent in pre-trial detention the students could also face a jail term of up to 22.6 years if convicted on multiple charges. To date they have only been able to consult their lawyers on the day of the hearing, so it is difficult for them to present an effective defence and they have limited access to their families. For some of the students, the fact that their families live up to 100 kilometers from the capital is an added difficulty. Meanwhile, the authorities are trying to make life as difficult as possible for the students in prison. They have been denied mosquito nets and medicines while female students have been subjected to pregnancy tests for no apparent reason.
Why such a brutal response?
Many commentators believe that the escalation of the Rohingya crisis, a recent upsurge in fighting in the Kachin state and the violent clampdown on the students are all part of an orchestrated campaign to increase the general feeling of insecurity in advance of the elections, scheduled for late October/ early November, while also helping to fragment the opposition. It is part of a traditional army policy of divide and conquer, and then, if that doesn't work, clamp down hard.
In Myanmar there has been a steady increase in political tension as parties and factions jostle for position in advance of the elections. The run up to the elections could almost be described as “the battle of the generals” as factions within the government vie for control of the government and the political agenda. While President Thein Sein is seen as at least marginally progressive and to some limited degree open to outside influence, he faces stiff competition from, among others, the Speaker of Parliament who is also a former general with considerable support.
As a result, in recent weeks there has been a flurry of divisive proposals for new legislation as parties try to secure a competitive advantage. Buddhist conservatives have tabled a new marriage law, the Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Bill which would discriminate against the non-Buddhist partner, while the Population Control Healthcare Bill gives state governments the power to impose birth control policies which would oblige a woman who has just had a child to wait three years before having another. Both are aimed at Muslim and ethnic communities such as the Rohingya. There have also been attempts to link the presence of Muslims in the national student movement and the fact that Muslims are prominent in the business community to the Rohingya issue, as a way of smearing the opposition. For the Buddhist conservatives, the Rohingya crisis is a prime opportunity to split the opposition and seize the political initiative.
The details of the clampdown itself warrant further scrutiny. What the police have not acknowledged so far is the alleged presence of army personnel in police uniform among the police as they moved in on the demonstrators. Most people seem to think that the police would not normally have responded in such a violent way and that the key factor was the presence of army personnel. At some point an order was given to attack and many believe that this came from the army. But perhaps the real reason for the crackdown is that, historically, the student movement has been one of the main sources of organised opposition to the military government and has been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. They are also organised on a national basis and are seen by the army as a serious threat to their power.
In this climate of uncertainty, human rights defenders are increasingly vulnerable to attack and risk being caught in the political crossfire. Not only has the government reneged on its promise to release all remaining political prisoners but continues to use restrictive legislation such as the Press Law and the Printers and Publishers Registration Law to silence dissent. Students are not the only group at risk. Journalists, human rights defenders, land rights campaigners and political activists are all threatened with arrest. As of January 2015 there were 159 political prisoners still in jail with another 213 awaiting trial.
On 23 April 2015, a court in Mandalay's Aung Myay Thar San Township sentenced human rights defender Mr Thein Aung Myint to six months imprisonment under Article 18 of the Act on the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession. Thein Aung Myint is a member of the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), a community-based organisation that campaigns against land-grabbing and restrictions of civil freedoms, as well as other human rights violations. He has worked to help communities advocate for the protection of their rights, in particular land rights.
On 2 April 2015 Ms Naw Ohn Hla
was sentenced to four months in prison after being found guilty on similar charges. Naw Ohn Hla has been a human rights defender and land rights activist for decades. She has been active in campaigning against the Letpadaung mining project in northern Myanmar, and is the co-founder of the Rangoon-based Democracy and Peace Women Network.
It is clear that the real political agenda here is to ensure that the Generals maintain their political and economic power post election, and while they may seem to go along with the reform process, they are doing everything in their power to subvert it and to limit its impact. The US and Britain cannot continue to give unequivocal support to a government which is prepared to use police violence to manipulate and control the political agenda. If human rights defenders, students and journalists cannot speak out or take part in a peaceful protest without fear of arrest or intimidation, then the process is largely one of smoke and mirrors rather than real substance.
About the author: Sayeed Ahmad is the protection coordinator for Asia with Front Line Defenders, the international Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin, Ireland.