Don’t forget detained students

Writer: 
Nay Htun Naing

“The charges increased within one year.”

A student leader Phyo Phyo Aung says so.

She has been tried four days a week for calling educational reforms alongside fellow student protest leaders, Min Thwe Thit and Nanda Sitt Aung.

More than 100 boycott students and protestors have been sued with charges that can imprison them for at least nine years.

In fact they did not demonstrate for their self-interest, and they are not criminals. They just asked for reforms in the education system for the country’s sake.

March 10 marks an anniversary of their arrest.

Is there anything different during the one year interval?

As Phyo Phyo Aung said, the charges against them increased in one year.

In early 2015, the democracy education protest column from Mandalay to Yangon was dispersed by the authorities brutally in Letpadan on March 10.

The protesting students were sent to the Thayawaddy Prison. Some of them were released on bail, but over 70 protestors are still detained. All the protestors across the nation were captured.

The student protestors have been primarily charged with sections 143, 145, 147, 332, and 505(b).

Section 143: Whoever is a member of an unlawful assembly shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.

Section 145: Whoever, joins or continues in an unlawful assembly, knowing that such unlawful assembly has been commanded in the manner prescribed by law to disperse, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Section 147: Whoever is guilty of rioting shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine or with both.

Section 332: Whoever, voluntarily causes hurt to any person being a public servant in the discharge of his duty as such public servant, or with intent to prevent or order that person or any other public servant from discharging his duty as such public servant, or in consequence of anything done or attempted to be done by that person in the lawful discharge of his duty as such public servants, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Section 505(b): Whoever makes, publishes, or circulates any statement, rumour or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years.

If the accused are convicted by these five charges, they would be jailed for eight years and six months. If they are also convicted by Section 18 of Peaceful Assembly and Procession, the prison sentence may increase up to more than nine years.

Their trials show no improvement so far. President Thein Sein granted no pardon. On the other hand, the National League for Democracy does not give any clear resolution as to the students’ trials.

 Meanwhile, the student protestors have been sued with extra charges by the authorities in different township.

The targets

Nanda Sitt Aung has 80 charges against him, and Phyo Phyo Aung has 25.

The courts of Thayawaddy and Kamaryut charged Nanda Sitte Aung with sections 18, 505(b), 143, 145, and 147. The Kamaryut Township Court sued him with three Section 18 charges. The courts of Botahtaung, Tamwe, and Kyauktada each sued him with a Section 18 charge. There are still a series of charges against him by other township courts.

The Thayawaddy Township Court charged Phyo Phyo Aung with sections 18, 505(b), 143, 145, 147, and 332 primarily. Then the Kamaryut Court added two Section 18 charges, and the courts of Botahtaung, Tamwe, and Kyauktada sued her with Section 18 charges.

Kyaw Ko Ko, the chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) working committee, has been charged with sections 18, 505(b), 143, 145, and 147 by the Thayawaddy and Kamaryut township courts. The Kamaryut and Kyauktada township courts each charged him with two Section 18 suits.

Min Thwe Thit is also sued with extra charges; the Thayawaddy Township Court sued him with sections 18, 505(b), 143, 145, 147, and 332, and the Kamaryut Court charged him with Section 18 additionally.

This is the situation of the student leaders among many student protestors who are on trial.

Although they did no harm to the society, they are facing with the charges with penalties heavier than those who harm the society could face.

The student protestors have been charged with Section 332 which protects the civil servants. But there is no charge against those civil servants protected by Section 332 who used violence on the students.

Who was wrong in the Letpadan protest march?

Before the Letpadan event, the students had negotiated with the government officials and had some agreements.

But it was the government who broke those agreements. The students have proofs about the pledges of Aung Min, the president’s office minister and the government’s chief negotiator in the talks with the students.

The government had promised not to take action against the students and the supporters for participating in the educational reform protest.

The government agreed with this during the four-party meeting at the Yangon regional parliament on February 11, 2015.

The students did not cross the line; the authorities did.

Especially, the Myanmar Police Force under the Home Affairs Ministry went beyond the rules in dispersing the protest column.

Fortify Rights and the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) released the report over the Letpadan Crackdown in October 2015 after analysing more than 500 photographs and 40 videos taken during the protest and crackdown.

The report contains four findings:

The Myanmar authorities ordered the protesters in Letpadan to disband, implemented a blockade to prevent protesters from continuing their march to Yangon, and announced prohibitions on chanting, singing, and flag-waving on March 10 without providing justifications that meet the criteria provided by international law for limiting the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. The Myanmar authorities’ inability to facilitate the protesters’ exercise of their rights exacerbated tensions that eventually resulted in a confrontation between police officers and protesters on March 10.

After initially exercising significant restraint on March 10, officers in the Myanmar Police Force used excessive force in violation of international standards against protesters who were attempting to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

There were also reports that those detained on March 10 were under police torture. The third point said it was in violation of the provision that police can use force only if necessary and in times of emergency.

The last point showed that continued arrests of and charges against protestors under the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law is also tantamount to breaching the international laws.

These four points further proved evidence of the findings of the 84-page report. Likewise, the statement issued by Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) in September last year revealed Myanmar's police violations of human rights.

 MNHRC statement

The five-page statement of the commission said Myanmar police failed to take effective control although they outnumbered the student demonstrators.

"It is reviewed that with a loss of control, Myanmar police turned to an unsystematic form in which some tried to hit what they saw, some forcibly stopped the protestors and some defended themselves with shields. They were thrown into chaos forgetting trainings given by the EU, the statement described.

One point stated: "Some police were found to have failed to follow the instruction issued by Myanmar Police Force Headquarters on March 9 that police responsible for handling student issues are to hold handcuffs only instead of carrying batons, shields and guns."    

The final part of the statement said: "Necessary action should be taken against those police forces who failed to take correct procedure in stopping the protest march on 10-3-2015. Action should be taken against those who failed to take step-by-step measures as they were trained."

Studying the investigations launched by international organisations and the statement issued by MNHRC, it is clear that the student protestors did not deserve blame in the Letpadan crackdown. But, it is still unknown how officials from the Home Affairs Ministry have taken responsibility for police action at that time.

Instead, Myanmar Police Force under that ministry is continuing to arrest and sue the students on various charges as well as additional charges.

Detained students' concerns

No detained student has demanded their release. The President Thein Sein government does not have compassion for the detained students and supporters. The students do not want to urge the incoming NLD government to release them, either. What they want is that steps should be taken in accord with the law.

Yet, they have raised some concerns. There are two main concerns. Firstly, the 11-point demand they have made for the change of the country's education system has not been met. They fear that it would be difficult for them to negotiate with the new government over their demand. The second concern is additional charges against them.

With the original charges, they could face up to nine years' imprisonment. In further cases, they are being charged under Section 18 of Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law. But in some cases, students are being charged under the same section although their cases are not related to that. It is doubtful why courts have accepted such cases.

All the plaintiffs are from Myanmar Police Force under the Home Affairs Ministry. According to the 2008 constitution, the home affairs minister is appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, no matter which government takes office. The detained students therefore assume that the issue is not directly related to the government.

As the handling of the student issue is within power of the Home Affairs Ministry, the students are concerned that such injustices could lead to confrontation between them and the government.

The students' concerns are not exaggerated. Even in the transitional period, more cases have emerged in which students, political activists, farmers and workers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, and the authorities' actions are called into question.

This means that the power of suppressing anyone within the framework of law regardless of whichever government rules the country is only in the hands of the Home Affairs Ministry.

On February 24, Nilar Thein from 88' Peace and Open Society faced a lawsuit for alleged participation in the Letpandan protest march. This is a cause of concern to political activists and students.

To reduce students' concerns, some laws must be amended and the role of parliament has come in this context.

The duty of parliament

The 11-point demand the students have made to change the country's education system has not been fully implemented. They are holding the 11-point demand following the promises from a four-party meeting. The incoming government needs to continue discussing and coordinating this issue.

Some existing laws must be amended in order to ensure justice for the students and prevent more arrests of them. Particularly, the draconian laws including the Section 18 and Section 505(b) must be amended.

It is not that difficult to amend those sections because the constitution has already given freedom of expression.

The new parliament led by NLD submitted and discussed an urgent proposal on ethnic affairs. Moreover, another important proposal was submitted to discuss calls for the government to scrutinise the rental, sale, handover and privatisation of state-owned land, factories and businesses after last November's elections. These two proposals were welcomed by the people.

One remaining thing is to address the student issue and abolish or amend the oppressive laws. If this could be discussed, the new parliament would become the legislative branch of power on which the people can rely even before its tenure turns 100 days.

Don't forget students

The parliament will begin a meeting on presidential nominations on March 10. That day coincides with the first anniversary of the crackdown on the Letpadan protest march calling for education reform. It should be called the day of violent crackdown on the political awakening of the students and the people rather than the anniversary of Letpadan crackdown.

From 1920 to the pre- and post-independence periods and till today, every student issue has been important for the country's political affairs. It is the students who always create a turning point for the future of the country.

Behind the demand for education reform in 2014 and 2015 was over 20 years of political oppression and public sufferings.

It is the habit of authoritarians to brand activists as rebels and communists. They did so in the successive eras.

Every student uprising is supported by the people, except for those in favour of dictatorship, lackeys and the privileged.  

Now, there is no reason for us not to support the students in their calls for education reform. Unfair detention of students in the aftermath of political backlash cannot be ignored anyway.

The detained students however have shown their patience. In the run-up to power transfer after the elections, all political forces as well as students have been watching the process with patience. The students are taking great care in order not to cause any problem.

Some detained students including Aung Hmine Hsan went on hunger strike. But, their action to suspend the hunger strike at a request of others including NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi is a proof of their care and patience.

The students assume that the new government will do something regarding the ongoing issues. They also believe that the parliament will not hesitate to take steps towards law amendments.

The parliament must be the initiator to fulfill their hopes. We cannot forget the detained students who participated in the effort to raise political awareness of the people.