In Myanmar, crackdown on student protests raises concern

A sharp rise in the number of political prisoners has observers doubting the government’s commitment to reform

Student activists try to speak to family members from a prison van after a violent crackdown against protesters in Letpadan, Myanmar, on March 11, 2015.
Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty Images

YANGON, Myanmar — In March hundreds of baton-wielding police bludgeoned a group of unarmed protesters in Letpadan, on the outskirts of Yangon. Officers kicked and punched dozens of activists before hustling them into vans. A menacing voice blasted from a megaphone, threatening legal action against the fleeing crowd.

With that, months of student-led protests calling for education reform in Myanmar came to an abrupt end. The crackdown marked the beginning of a spate of arrests that would increase nearly sixfold the number of political prisoners in the country from the previous year. Within days, 133 activists were detained. Some were snatched from their beds at night; others were dragged away from protest sites. By mid-April, most of the student leaders were in custody.

The protests were aimed at a controversial education law enacted in October that activists say limits academic freedoms and prohibits the formation of student unions. Activists began calling for amendments to the law more than six months ago, and earlier this year, the government agreed to re-evaluate the legislation, at the same time warning student protesters marching toward Yangon not to enter the city. After the crackdown, Myanmar’s parliament rejected most of the students’ recommendations.

Myanmar, which is emerging from half a century of military rule, has a history of crushing student-led dissent. In 1988, 3,000 civilians were massacred on the streets of Yangon as the army rolled in tanks to disperse swelling pro-democracy protests. Since 2011, the country has worked hard to shed its reputation as a totalitarian state, freeing thousands of imprisoned dissidents and easing media restrictions under the leadership of President Thein Sein, a former general. The U.S. government responded by lifting sanctions and boosting economic ties with Myanmar. One of the United States’ key conditions for engagement was the release of all political prisoners.

Recently, however, Myanmar’s reforms appear to have stalled, overshadowed by resurgent ethnic conflict, police brutality and a crackdown on protesters.

Ko Nanda Sitt Aung, a leader of Myanmar’s prominent activist group All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), was declared a fugitive by the government for his role in Letpadan. In defiance, he staged a demonstration in downtown Yangon to condemn police brutality during the March protest. Plainclothes police grabbed him at a bus stop on his way home.

Ko Nanda now faces five criminal charges under Myanmar’s draconian colonial-era penal code, including sedition and unlawful assembly, and risks more than 10 years in prison. As prescribed by Myanmar law, he will be charged in all 38 townships where he is suspected of having led protests. But according to his lawyer and father, U Htay, some of the accusations are completely fabricated.

“We checked with the police, and they said some cases were filed against him because they did not know who actually led the protests,” said U Htay.

This is not the first time Ko Nanda has been persecuted for his work with the ABFSU, a historic student union founded under a different name by independence hero Aung San in 1931 and banned by the junta in 1962. In 2004, Ko Nanda, then a young student teacher, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing leaflets critical of the military regime and working with exiled pro-democracy groups to revive the student union. He was tortured so severely in prison that he was unable to walk for several days. In a 2004 cable leaked by WikiLeaks six years later, a U.S. Embassy representative in Yangon described his sentence as “business as usual for a regime that tolerates no dissent.”

Ko Nanda was released in January 2012 as part of a widely lauded amnesty ruling intended to signal Myanmar’s emergence from decades of iron-fisted rule. But U Htay fears that the government, currently led by former generals, has reverted to its old ways.

“The violent crackdown of the Letpadan protest left us all in dismay,” said U Htay, who spent five years as a political prisoner in the mid-1990s for his labor rights activism. “We learned a big political lesson that day.”

“If the government cannot even be generous about education reforms that do not harm anyone’s interest, then it is unlikely they will be generous about constitutional reforms that will challenge the army’s leading role in national politics,” he said. 

Unidentified student protesters arrive at a court in Letpadan for a hearing on March 25, 2015.
Soe Than Win / AFP / Getty Images

Student leaders say the government was never planning to make concessions.

“Since the beginning, the government was not interested in negotiation,” said 23-year-old Aung Nay Paing, a student leader from Meiktila. “Their idea of discussion is telling the students to stop protesting.”

Aung Nay Paing was one of six ABFSU leaders chosen to negotiate with the government regarding education reform. He is the only one of them who has not been arrested. Three other leaders wanted by the government are on the run, and dozens more activists are in hiding. The police have hacked phone lines and social media accounts belonging to imprisoned activists, but students have pledged to keep protesting. Speaking from an undisclosed location in Yangon, Aung Nay Paing said he is unable to return to Meiktila, where military intelligence officers are monitoring his house, for fear of arrest.

The number of political prisoners in Myanmar has soared over the past year, and in addition to student protesters, human rights activists and journalists are increasingly targeted under repressive laws. In 2013, Thein Sein pledged to release all political prisoners by the end of that year, but the number of incarcerated dissidents never dipped below 33. There are now 172 political prisoners in Myanmar, with an additional 296 activists awaiting trial, according to the watchdog Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP-B). More than 100 of those awaiting trial were reportedly involved in the education protests.

Even though the government has a tendency to announce amnesties ahead of high-profile diplomatic events — as it did before President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November — prisoners are never released unconditionally and can be forced to serve the remainder of their sentences at any time. “The U.S. government should put more pressure on Burma to release political prisoners,” said Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the AAPP, using the country’s former name. “Constructive engagement is not enough to free them.”

The Obama administration, which has been swift to tout Myanmar’s democratic reforms as a foreign policy success, has pumped more than $200 million in aid into the impoverished country since 2011. In late March, the U.S. government issued a short statement expressing concern over the arrests, but it has been reluctant to criticize the administration too harshly. (The recent crackdown has also been embarrassing for the European Union, which spent $11 million training the Myanmar police force on crowd control.) With six months to go until Myanmar’s pivotal general elections, the U.S. has focused diplomatic efforts on the government’s failure to amend the military-drafted constitution, which bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

There have been other signs that the government has been taking a harsher line on dissent.

In mid-April, 20 human rights organizations called on Myanmar to re-establish a government-backed committee tasked with identifying and securing the release of political prisoners. Two months earlier, key civil society voices, including members of the AAPP-B, were excluded from the committee, and it was placed under the chairmanship of Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Gen. Kyaw Kyaw Tun. His office is under the command of the military and is widely believed to have ordered the Letpadan crackdown.

Bo Kyi described the committee as a “showcase” intended to dupe the international community.

Around the same time, it was revealed that the Myanmar government hired a public relations firm based in Washington, D.C., for $840,000 a year to boost its relationship with Washington.

In response to Letpadan, officials have dismissed accusations of wrongdoing, blaming students for stirring unrest. Minister of Information Ye Htut bizarrely compared the crackdown to last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri. “When protesters in Ferguson were dispersed with the use of tanks, nobody spoke of U.S. democracy having backtracked,” he said to state media.

This didn't come as a surprise to activists, many of whom believe that the government has shown its true colors.

“A reformist government should have transparency, accountability and responsibility. But this government has none of those,” said Aung Nay Paing. “They still crack down on public protests in the same fashion as the previous military junta … The only difference is that now they do it with [a sense of] legitimacy.”

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