Activists leaping back into the fire

While President Thein Sein is lauded by the international community as a reformer, those organising peaceful protests in the country are dealing with repression similar to what they faced under the old regime

After serving 14 years in some of Myanmar's most notorious prisons following his arrest for participating in a protest while a student in 1991, Bo Bo Han is now facing the prospect of another year behind bars. His crime? Leading a peaceful march to the Gen Aung San monument in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, on International Peace Day, Sept 21, last year.

OUT OF THE DARKNESS: Young readers visit a library that Bo Bo Han has funded himself.

''The 2008 constitution gives us the right to demonstrate peacefully. But the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law effectively means we need police approval before demonstrating,'' Bo Bo Han said. ''But if we had applied for permission we knew we wouldn't get it.''

He said he had previously followed Article 18 of the law and sought permission for a march on Martyr's Day and to hold a prayer ceremony for peace on another occasion. Both requests were denied.

Chapter 8, Section 354 of the military-drafted 2008 Myanmar constitution states: ''Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality: (a) to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions; (b) to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession.''

Western countries have widely praised such rights to public assembly being enshrined in Myanmar's constitution. But Bo Bo Han and others know that in practice the country's laws are more restrictive in practice than they appear on paper.

Organisers must apply for permission from authorities at least five days in advance of an event, and must submit written versions of all speeches and slogans that will be used. This effectively gives the government the power to legally restrict freedom of speech and assembly.

Bo Bo Han is not the only one facing charges.

Twelve activists have been charged with violating Article 18 by leading a march of about 1,000 demonstrators in Yangon. And all are facing charges in each of the 10 districts of Yangon they marched in.

This tactic of using multiple local charges to overwhelm political activists is common. A group currently marching 1,300km for peace from Yangon to Laiza, in Kachin state, are facing charges in each of the 12 districts they have passed through. As Spectrum went to press, the marchers had reached Mohnyin in Kachin state, some 240km from their destination.

REMEMBERING THE FALLEN: Bo Bo Han, wearing the red longyi, pays respect at a monument to Myanmar’s martyrs with a group of students.

''As far as I know, expression of feeling, peaceful assembly and marches are fundamental rights,'' said Yan Naing Tun, one of the marchers, by mobile phone with the sound of his fellow activists' cheers and applause ringing in the background.

''Article 18 should be totally rewritten because we currently have to ask permission from the police for our basic rights. This law takes away one of our fundamental rights,'' he said.

The law also restricts public gatherings that could damage the state or that may disrupt traffic or otherwise inconvenience the public.

In November, during US President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar, the police in Taunggyi filed charges against Bo Bo Han for his violation of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly law and for leading an unauthorised assembly in September.

''Myanmar citizens are granted certain rights in the 2008 constitution, but in practice, some of these rights have been blocked or limited by law _ we don't really have some of the rights given to us in the constitution and there are limitations placed on others,'' said Bo Bo Han.

He lives in Aungban, about 60km from Taunggyi, and must make a five-hour round trip bus journey whenever he is summoned by the court in Taunggyi for proceedings related to the charges he faces.

''In three months, I've had to travel seven times to Taunggyi to attend court, so I couldn't concentrate on my job,'' said Bo Bo Han, who was a teacher at a private boarding school in Aungban.

The charges he faces, and the disruption caused by travelling to Taunggyi have resulted in the loss of his job.

''I don't work there any more because the owner was reluctant to keep me on, so I resigned,'' he said.

''The public are still afraid due to memories of the military junta. When the civilian government took power, public interest in politics grew, partly due to new press freedoms. But people see what happens to people like us, who are involved in politics, and they are scared. Some get involved in politics, but most are just struggling to get by, and fear keeps them away from politics.

''The Peaceful Assembly law doesn't guarantee the safety of the public, rather it's designed to stop peaceful public assembly and to intimidate people,'' said Bo Bo Han.

''Many Myanmar watchers think everything here has improved, but it's really just superficial. People are worried about the economy, lack of health care, social problems and their children's futures. There is still civil war and no peace,'' said Bo Bo Han. ''The regimes governing the country since independence have concentrating on their own long-term aims and the cost of the military machine has been burden for all of us.''

In January, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on Myanmar authorities to wave all charges against activists who have participated in peaceful protests against the government. The organisation also urged the government to amend the Peaceful Assembly law to conform to international human rights standards.

''The government's prosecution of peaceful demonstrators reveals troubling limits on Burma's [Myanmar's] respect for basic rights,'' said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in the statement.

''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.''

However, the government seems to have turned a deaf ear to its citizens' demands. In January, the Myanmar army began using air strikes to attack positions held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). After taking control of all of the strategic hills surrounding the KIA headquarters at Laiza, the Myanmar government held talks with the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, in Ruli, China. The talks were praised by the UN and other groups.''The international community should be aware of what is really happening on the ground and what the government is really doing,'' said Bo Bo Han.

President Thein Sein is to receive a peace prize from the International Crisis Group (ICG) next month, and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize despite his governments' oppression of peace campaigners and continued war against the Kachin.

''Myanmar has initiated a remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms since President Thein Sein's government took over in March, 2011, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, liberalising the press and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party,'' said ICG chief Louise Arbour.

The head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Kristian Berg Harpviken named President Thein Sein as among the five frontrunners for the prestigious Nobel Peace prize in recognition of his efforts in the peace process in the country.

This prompted Moon Nay Li, from the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand, to comment: ''The international community is talking about how Burma is now reforming into a democratic country.

''But in Kachin state things are worse than ever before. So how can we understand that he [Thein Sein] could be given the Nobel peace prize?''

Bo Bo Han agrees. ''By honouring Thein Sein with these prizes, the international community may have a ticket to good relations with the government, but people are still suffering the effects of civil war and lacking basic rights.''

About the author

Writer: Ko Htwe