‘One Prisoner of Conscience is One Too Many’
In an appalling verdict on Friday, three Kachin human rights defenders – Lum Zawng, Nang Pu and Zau Jat – were sentenced to six months in prison and given a 500,000 Kyat fine each (approximately $320 USD) for publicly calling for the protection of civilians in conflict zones and for comments made about the Myanmar military’s abuses against civilians. Just days after the sentencing of the three Kachin activists, Myanmar and the world commemorated Human Rights Day, a cruel irony given just how little Myanmar has changed since the so-called transition from military rule to democracy that began seven years ago.
The three activists were accused of defaming the Myanmar military by the northern commander, Lt-Col Myo Min Oo, who used Article 500 of the colonial-era Penal Code to file charges, suppressing their right to freedom of speech. Immediately following the verdict, Kachin youth representatives and activists protested the verdict by marching from the courthouse to the historic Manau Park in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to demand justice for the three activists. In yet another repressive move, the Myitkyina Township police arrested and charged the three activists who led the most recent demonstration – Sut Seng Htoi, Seng Hkum Awng, and Brang Mai – for allegedly violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law.
In response, over 550 civil society organizations and 30 individuals from Myanmar have unified in condemning the verdict and have demanded their immediate and unconditional release. Political parties, international human rights groups and embassies, including the EU, Sweden and UK delegations to Myanmar have raised concerns, many calling for their verdict to be immediately quashed. As the Kachin World Congress stated, the Myanmar military “are flaunting their impunity and power over the justice system by exacting unjust sentencing, intimidating anyone daring to speak out against their crimes. Meanwhile, they are continuing their attacks and maligned activities on our Kachin territories, displacing indigenous people, and seizing our lands and natural resources – all during the so-called ‘peace process’.” Solidarity has flooded in from other ethnic communities also condemning the verdict as a ploy to silence any criticism of the military and called on donors of the peace process to launch a comprehensive review of their support to the current peace process. As the Karen Peace Support Network in their unequivocal support and solidarity for the Kachin activists stated, “ethnic people will stand united for our rights, for peace, and for our freedom.”
This miscarriage of justice only highlights how little Myanmar has progressed in terms of its protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms, particularly for those who remain marginalized and vulnerable to persecution for their religious beliefs and identity. As events observing 70 years since the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were held on 10 December, 2018 around the world, it is high time to take stock and take concrete actions against the ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar and immediately work to end the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated against ethnic communities.
The world must act now to fulfill its duties and obligations to which they committed to 70 years ago. This means: an immediate and comprehensive review of the peace process; targeted sanctions against those who continue to commit grave crimes; a global embargo on arm sales to the Myanmar military; travel bans against perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; a strong UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar to hold those who have committed atrocity crimes accountable and to ensure that mechanisms set up to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar are adequately funded through the UN General Assembly; and to call for the immediate and unconditional release of the three Kachin activists as well as to drop all charges against those individuals who have exercised their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association, and have spoken up for those who continue to face charges for speaking up for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in Myanmar. As Nang Pu, the Director of Htoi Gender and Development Foundation and one of the Kachin women human rights defenders who will now be forced to spend the next six months in jail for protecting and advocating for the rights of internally displaced persons stated, “The decision of the court shows that our country is not a democratic country although the current government came to power by proclaiming itself a democratic government.” If the international community’s wish is to support democracy and human rights in Myanmar, they must condemn the sentencing and demand a genuine reform that allows freedom for activists to pursue democracy peacefully without fear of persecution and prosecution.
The now State Councellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, once a political prisoner herself said, “one prisoner of conscience is one too many.” She must act now to demonstrate that her words can be trusted and that they are not just empty expressions but are meaningful to change the discourse of the failing transition that is proving to be undemocratic in practice.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 20 Myanmar Media Organizations
By 559 Civil Society Organizations and 31 Individuals
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide
By Human Rights Watch
By Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Kachin Women’s Association Thailand
By Karenni Land Seminar
By Kachin National Organisation
By Karen Peace Support Network
By Office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict
By Shan communities and local Members of Parliaments
By World Kachin Congress
By Free Burma Rangers
By Karenni Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction Working Group
By Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization
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.”