Human rights violations still rife in Myanmar

Despite the euphoria surrounding the upcoming national election in November 2015, human rights abuses and violations are still prevalent in Myanmar with no clear sign of improvement.

Representatives from many local civil society organisations (CSOs) in Myanmar took the floor at a Lecture organized by UPR Info and the Burma-Myanmar UPR Forum, at Thammasat University, Tha Prachan Campus, Bangkok, on Wednesday morning, 9 September 2015, to present on the human rights situation in Myanmar and in the borders of Thailand/Myanmar. 

They presented their findings and recommendations before the country’s 2nd Universal Periodic Review (UPR), on 6 November 2015, when the Myanmar government’s compliance with its human rights obligations will be reviewed by all 193 UN Member States at the UN Human Rights Council. Their information, together with information provided by the United Nations and the Government will serve as the basis for Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review, during which the government will declare what steps it has taken to improve the human rights situation followed by UN state members making UPR recommendations for the next 4.5 years.

Emilie Pradichit, UPR Info Asia Regional Representative, explained that human rights defenders’ engagement in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is important because the “UPR is the only Political Process which legitimately brings solutions from local communities to the Government, with UN Member States acting as the main Bridge. It is hoped that the solutions provided by the UPR recommendations would form the basis of the next generation of human rights responses for the upcoming government of Myanmar.”

At the discussion, Myanmar’s human rights defenders concluded that contrary to the belief that Myanmar has become more open after the 2010 reforms led by President Thein Sein and his party, the Union of Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), human rights abuses are still rampant if not getting worse.

Thousands of supporters of the National League of Democracy Party (NLD) of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi, gathered in Yangon on 17 May 2014 to support the NLD’s campaign to amend the 2008 Constitution (courtesy of The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society)  

Land Grab Epidemic

Khin Omar, a human rights defender from Burma Partnership, said that as other countries and international investors now think of Myanmar as the ‘last frontier’ in the rush for natural resources such as petroleum, gold, and timber, local human right defenders, indigenous people, and other marginalised groups are being suppressed.

“The gold rush mentality that some international investors have towards Myanmar has aided human rights abuses in the last several years. Local land rights defenders especially have suffered harassment at the hands of the authorities in the name of development,” said Khin Omar. “The country has been experiencing a land grab epidemic.”

Bawi Pi, a panellist at the seminar from the Coalition of Indigenous People in Myanmar, mentioned that about 60 per cent of Myanmar’s primary natural resources are located in the ethnic areas, but local indigenous groups are being excluded from enjoying the benefits of these resources.

“There have been cases where the Myanmar army has confiscated land from indigenous communities. In 2014, in Leik Tho sub-township, Taw Oo (Taungoo) Township of Bago Region, the Myanmar army confiscated 200-300 acres of the villagers’ farmland,” said Bawi Pi.

When it comes to ownership of land and natural resources, the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar states “the Union [of Myanmar] is the ultimate owner of all land and natural resources.”

The 2015 UPR report notes that since 1995 more than 1,800 acres of land in Mon State have been grabbed by the Burmese military.

Despite the ceasefire agreements with 14 major ethnic armed groups concluded in 2011, clashes continue in many non-ceasefire areas, which in many cases are related to control over territory and natural resources.     

The Myth of Freer Media

Since the 2010 reforms, the international community has praised Myanmar for the fact that the government seems to be lifting its claws over media control. However, journalists and activists who try to push the envelope beyond the undefined borderline can face numerous years of imprisonment from the Myanmar authorities.

According to Ma Thida, from PEN Myanmar: Freedom of Opinion and Expression, without a licence from the government, media outlets are not allowed to publish any information.

“Most licenses are given to state-owned media outlets and while other media groups are still controlled through the license system, the state media can do whatever,” said Ma Thida.

She mentioned that members of the press who criticise the government can be accused of ‘defamation against the state or criminal defamation’ under Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, which can land them in prison for years. There are also the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, the 2000 Internet Act, and the 2004 Electronic Transaction Act, all of which have been used to imprison journalists and writers for long terms.

“In certain areas of Shan State where martial law is still imposed, journalists could even face the death penalty if their news coverage is considered seditious by Myanmar army standards,” said Ma Thida.

According to the UPR report, in July 2014, five journalists from Unity Weekly Journal were sentenced to 10 years in jail under the State Secrets Act of 1923. In the same year, the Ministry of Information of Myanmar also sued 17 senior members of the editorial team of Daily Eleven for publishing an investigative report on Ministry corruption.

In addition to the lack of media freedom, activists who exercise freedom of expression also face judicial harassment.

Aung Khaing Min, from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), noted that although hundreds of political prisoners have now been freed since the reforms, the authorities still prosecute political dissidents, but with criminal charges rather than political ones.

“Since the reforms, the penalty for sedition offences under Article 18 of the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Act (PPE) could be as severe as 10 years imprisonment per count. Now, it is 6 months per count. However, in a recent case, an activist was sentenced under this Act on 67 counts,” said Aung Khaing Min.

There is also ill treatment of land rights activists and ethnic farmers in various regions at the hands of the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw). The 2015 UPR report records that in September 2014 the Tatmadaw allegedly tortured seven Chin farmers in Paletwa Township of Chin State after accusing them of associating with the Chin National Army, a Chin ethnic armed group.

The report adds that after the farmers filed torture allegations against the army, they were detained again by the Tatmadaw soldiers and forced to sign a statement to drop the torture allegations.

Burmans and the ‘rest’  

Human rights violations against many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, especially non-Buddhist ethnic groups, such as the Rohingya Muslims and Christian Karen or Kachin, who are denied Myanmar citizenship, are still being ignored.

According to Wai Wai Nu, the director of the Women Peace Network (WPNA) a human rights NGO based in the western Rakhine State, who has been documenting the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the State, the Rohingya are still living in fear of harassment both from public officials and their Buddhist neighbours.

“The policy to deny citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims began in the 1990s. The government then issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRC) to the Rohingya instead of citizenship,” said Wai Wai Nu. “Now they have been issuing ‘Green Cards’ to the Rohingya people and many of them fear that their situation would only get worse.”

The WPNA director added that the Rohingya in Rakhine State are still living as if they are in an ‘open prison’ out of fear of abuse from the authorities and their neighbours. According to the UPR report, over 140,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslim minority members remain confined in an ‘internment camp’ in Rakhine state, while thousands of others in the past several years have chosen to escape violence and abuse, falling victim to traffickers along the way.

“With the monsoon expected to end in the coming October, there will still be Rohingya and others attempting to cross the sea because of the abuse of rights and violations they suffer,” added Wai Wai Nu.   

Naw Hsar Hsar, from the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO), another human rights defender at the event, said that there are also hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, most of whom are members of ethnic groups along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Currently, there are about 130,000 refugees from Myanmar living in nine refugee camps in northern Thailand and most of them still do not want to return to Myanmar because of the protracted armed conflicts between the Myanmar army and the ethnic militant groups.

“Although Myanmar government officials have announced plans to allow the refugees to return after the 2015 November election, many of the refugees do not want to, because an internal civil war is still going on in the ethnic areas,” said Naw Hsar Hsar. “There is no guarantee that ethnic refugees would be safe and protected once they return.”

Khin Omar concluded that it is ironic that although Burma’s government and the ethnic groups signed the Panglong Agreement to guarantee equality and inclusiveness to everyone at Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the agreement has always been ignored.

“Neither the government army nor many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups can guarantee protection and safety to the people,” said a human rights defender from Burma Partnership.

Joseph Wah, an activist from Equality Myanmar, mentioned that in order to create human rights protection mechanisms and a more inclusive Myanmar, certain laws of the 2008 Constitution have to be amended to allow more civilian oversight over the implementation of the rule of law.

“Article 445 of Myanmar’s Constitution, which gives public officials immunity from prosecution for past human rights violations, should be amended,” said Joseph.