The Perilous Defense of Human Rights

Amid a catastrophic human rights crisis, the space for civil society and human rights defenders is shrinking as protests in Yangon are banned, a land rights defender is beaten to death, and spurious charges are used to silence those who speak out against the military’s violations.

In early November 2017, Yangon Region Security and Border Affairs Minister – a military-assigned position in local government – issued an order that all applications for public assembly are to be denied in eleven townships in Myanmar’s[1] biggest city. By effectively banning peaceful assembly, the Yangon authorities are contradicting domestic legislation – specifically the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law – which although problematic still gives people of Myanmar the right to peacefully assemble. Furthermore, the ban is in violation of Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which gives everyone the right to “freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

It is not just urban areas where space for civil society is shrinking. In conflict-affected Kachin State where the Myanmar Army has committed a litany of human rights abuses over many years, to speak out against this violence is to face charges. Dashi Naw Lawn, an ethnic Kachin man who is the General Secretary of the Kachin National Development Foundation, has been charged with criminal defamation under the Section 500 of the Penal Code after his organization distributed pamphlets outlining the abuse and destruction that the Myanmar Army has committed in Kachin State.

In certain cases, to be a human rights defender means facing death. In a tragic case, Htay Aung, a land rights defender who was a focal person with the Federation of National Peasant Union was beaten to death by a mob of 20 men during an inspection of disputed land that had been confiscated nearly 30 years ago and reallocated to a different community.

It is vital that civil society space is expanded and the rights of people are protected, not restricted if Myanmar is to move towards a democratic society with transparency, accountability and checks and balances of the powerful. Those human rights defenders who bravely and tirelessly work for the rights of the most vulnerable populations are becoming more and more at risk. Through repressive legislation, arbitrary judicial harassment, and violence, the Myanmar military, government authorities and their associated businesses are able to avoid accountability and ensure that the vulnerable populations they abuse, whether through land confiscations, destruction of property, arbitrary arrest, rape and sexual violence, torture or extrajudicial killing, do not find justice. This only illustrates how important the work of rights-based civil society and human rights defenders is.

It is vital that civil society space is expanded and the rights of people are protected, not restricted if Myanmar is to move towards a democratic society with transparency, accountability and checks and balances of the powerful

The National League for Democracy (NLD) Government may be restricted in its overall power vis-à-vis the Myanmar Army, but it can work towards repealing and/or amending legislation that the Myanmar Army can use as a tool for repression. It must utilize their legislative power to further protect human rights defenders against spurious charges. Furthermore, the international community must seek to support those at risk who work with grassroots communities to protect the most vulnerable, including providing support for protection mechanisms and preventative measures for activists and human rights defenders. Ultimately, it is the work and sacrifice of those working on the ground with their own personal security at stake that will make the most progress towards the promotion and protection of human rights. Given the huge power imbalance between them and the perpetrators of human rights abuses, these courageous human rights defenders and activists on the ground must be given all the support possible.

The international community must seek to support those at risk who work with grassroots communities to protect the most vulnerable, including providing support for protection mechanisms and preventative measures for activists and human rights defenders.

 

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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: Military Attempts to Whitewash Crimes Against Humanity Targeting Rohingya
By Amnesty International

ASEAN’s Failure to Address Drivers of Rohingya Crisis Undermines Credibility, Regional Lawmakers Warn
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

As Tillerson Visits Burma International Pressure and Action are Essential
By Burma Human Rights Network

Coalition of 15 Human Rights Organizations Launches NOW! Campaign Calling on Vietnam to Immediately and Unconditionally Release 165 Prisoners of Conscience

By Coalition of 15 Human Rights Organizations

Foreign Affairs Committee Condemns Ethnic Cleansing in Burma
By Foreign Affairs Committee

New Report: Mounting Evidence of Genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar
By Fortify Rights and United States Holocaust Memorial

Myanmar: Drop Criminal Defamation Charges Against Kachin Activist
By Fortify Rights and Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand

Burma: Army Report Whitewashes Ethnic Cleansing
By Human Rights Watch

Burma: Withdraw Protest Ban in Yangon
By Human Rights Watch

Burma: Widespread Rape of Rohingya Women, Girls
By Human Rights Watch

Tillerson Must Take Action During Myanmar Visit
By Refugees International

SEAPA: Two-Month Jail Time for Journalists—a Harsh Punishment
By Southeast Asian Press Alliance

Statement on US Speaking Tour
By Smile Education and Development Foundation

Secretary-General’s remarks at the 9th ASEAN-UN Summit
By United Nations Information Centre, Yangon

Joint Press: United States Secretary of State, Rex Wayne Tillerson with Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
By United States Secretary of State, Rex Wayne Tillerson

reports

Reports

“They Tried to Kill Us All”: Atrocity Crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar
By Fortify Rights and United States Holocaust Memorial

“All of My Body Was Pain” Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma
By Human Rights Watch

United States Assistance to Burma
By US Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.

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