Open Letter to U Thein Sein
President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Re: Arbitrary Arrest, Incommunicado Detention and Unfair Trial of Human Rights Defenders and Peaceful Protesters
Burma Partnership, a regional democracy and human rights advocacy network, and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma, a political prisoner monitoring and advocacy group, along with the human rights organizations endorsing this letter, wish to draw your attention to the arbitrary arrest, prolonged incommunicado detention, and unfair trial of human rights defenders and peaceful protesters, most recently in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Region.
U Aung Soe (Yangon People’s Support Network), Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San are human rights activists who used nonviolent methods to protest the construction of the Letpadaung copper mine in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Region, which has resulted in forced evictions, arbitrary land confiscations, loss of livelihoods, and potential environmental destruction. For this, the three protesters were arrested by police on 25 April 2013, at which point they were taken to the company’s building responsible for constructing the copper mine, Wanbao. They were then subjected to a litany of human rights violations, including prolonged incommunicado detention and denial of due process of law, in addition to their initial arbitrary arrest.
The authorities failed to provide warrants at the time of their arrest. Even more disturbing, Sagaing Region authorities kept the whereabouts of the protesters secret for over 30 days. Concerned family members, who had made repeated attempts to local township police stations and a nearby prison, were reportedly treated poorly when they asked about the fate of their loved ones.1 It wasn’t until after a closed-door court proceeding, which resulted in a bogus guilty verdict, that the whereabouts of the three protesters were revealed. The court sentenced U Aung Soe to 18 months in prison, Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San to six months imprisonment in total disregard of their right to due process of law. All of them are still facing additional charges.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that “incommunicado detention should be made illegal, and persons held incommunicado should be released without delay.”2
Arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and unfair trial have no place in a country transitioning towards democracy.
Your Excellency, this is by no means an isolated incident.
Myanmar security forces have a track record of targeting individuals who openly criticize this government-backed copper mine with interrogations, threats, and other acts of harassment in an effort to punish their human rights activities. We were dismayed to hear that U Myint Aung, whose only “crime” was to lead peaceful ceremonies as an act of protest against the copper mine, was sentenced to one year in prison with hard labor on 6 June. Further, police rejected every application submitted by community leaders, including monks and local villagers, to demonstrate against the copper mine project, and then proceeded to selectively arrest and detain demonstrators for not having a permit.3
Our organizations condemn that this arbitrary arrest and prolonged incommunicado detention of U Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu, and U Maung San takes place in the context of a violent crackdown targeting Letpadaung protesters on 29 November 2012, which has included documented use of white phosphorus by security forces against peaceful demonstrators,4 despite the fact that in March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council expressed concern on the continued discriminate use of arbitrary detention and urged the Government of Myanmar to “put an end to such violations and to take necessary measures to ensure accountability and end impunity.”5
We fear that the persecution of U Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu, U Maung San and U Myint Aung will be the first in a long line of arbitrary arrests relating to the Letpadaung copper mine. The Commander of the Sagaing Region Police Force recently announced that the police will lodge charges against eight persons for allegedly provoking demonstrations connected with the Letpadaung copper mine protests. The announcement warns that failure to provide information leading to the apprehension of these persons or harboring them constitutes criminal offenses.
These actions are a clear attempt at discouraging human rights activists and political dissent and are a direct consequence of their roles in peacefully opposing the Letpadaung copper mine. These actions are also not in compliance with the rule of law in a democratic transition.
The case of the Letpadaung demonstrators takes place in a broader context of restrictions on human rights defenders’ activities. Our organizations have been documenting numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, detention and judicial harassment of peaceful human rights defenders and dissidents throughout the country.6
This month again, on 12 June 2013, activists Ko Aye Thein, Ko Sein Aung and Ko Win Swe Myint were sentenced by Chan Aye Thar Zen Township Court to one year and three months imprisonment after staging a peaceful demonstration against the relocation of street vendors’ in Mandalay. They were previously arrested without warrant and denied bail. Thus, they spent 177 days in detention including two days in solitary confinement.
Another illustration of arbitrary arrest, detention and judicial harassment of well-known activists is the arrest of Ko Ye Min Oo, Secretary of the Federation of Students’ Unions (Organizing Committee). Ko Ye Min Oo was arrested on 25 March 2013 and was missing for five days. He is now being held in Insein prison and faces charges under section 505 (b) of the Penal Code in three different courts.
If Myanmar is to move towards a genuine democracy, it must equally guarantee people’s fundamental rights and immediately end restrictions on fundamental freedoms and on human rights defenders’ work.
Therefore, our organizations respectfully urge you, President U Thein Sein, to use the power of your executive office to ensure that your government:
- Immediately and unconditionally releases U Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu, U Maung San and U Myint Aung along with all remaining political prisoners and newly detained human rights defenders;
- Immediately ceases all forms of intimidation, including arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, as well as restrictions and charges against peaceful protesters;
- Amends or repeals all legislation identified by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar as not being in line with international human rights norms and treaties, including the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act and the 2008 Constitution;
- Ratifies and effectively implements all core international human rights treaties and their optional protocols;
- Undertakes reforms to ensure the independence, impartiality, and accountability of the judiciary, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors; and,
- Immediately establishes an independent commission tasked with investigating the use of excessive force by the police and security personnel against peaceful protesters during the November crackdown in Salingyi Township, with the view of bringing those responsible to justice.
We express our sincere hope that you take these requests and considerations into account and thank you in advance for your attention.
Altsean-Burma Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma
Forum for Democracy in Burma
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma
Students and Youth Congress of Burma
Additional information on the cases
On 25 April 2013, farmers who have refused compensation from the Wanbao Company began plowing on the fields in Hse Te and the nearby village of Moegypyin that had previously been confiscated from them. On 25 April 2013, at 9am, police and firefighters arrived at the scene and allegedly began assaulting the farmers who were working on the fields. The police claimed that they had warned the villagers to stop their activities on the land as a prohibition to access the land has been declared under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It was reported that at least ten people were injured in the crackdown, with at least one individual sustaining gunshot wounds.7 The police later claimed that the villagers started throwing petrol bombs and stones at the police, which purportedly prompted the crackdown – this claim has been denied by activists and villagers involved in the protest.8 In the crackdown on 25 April, the police arrested U Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San.
The whereabouts of the three protesters remained unknown for over 30 days. Concerned family members, joined by sympathetic villagers and activists, made repeated attempts to reveal the whereabouts of their detained loved ones. Police officers and prison authorities at the Sarlingyi Township police station and Monywa prison denied that the three were being held there, and refused to disclose further information as to their location. In early June, family members finally learned that the three had been in state custody and were facing trial.
U Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San were essentially held incommunicado for over one month. Family members were not given any information about their whereabouts, location of detention or trial date. The trial took place behind closed doors and the three were denied legal representation and due process of law.9
On 1 June, the district court of Shwebo sentenced U Aung Soe to 18 months in prison under 3 counts of section 188 of the Penal Code, which allows for a maximum 6 months imprisonment for disobedience of an order promulgated by a public servant. Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San were sentenced to 6 months imprisonment each under one count of section 188.
The three demonstrators are facing additional charges. U Aung Soe is awaiting trial for allegedly breaching section 295 (intent to insult a religion by destroying, defiling, or damaging a place of worship or sacred object), 295(a) (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), and 333 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty) of the Penal Code. Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San are facing charges under section 333. These charges carry a maximum punishment of 2 years, 2 years, and 10 years respectively.
In November and December 2012, U Myint Aung led ceremonies that protested the Letpadaung Copper Mine. As a result, the Monywa Township Police Superintendent, Kyu Ein, filed a case against U Myint Aung under section 18 of the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act on 24 May 2013. Around 3pm on 6 June 2013, U Myint Aung was sentenced to one-year imprisonment with hard labor by the township judge, U Khin Maung Win, at Monywa Township court.
In addition, Ko Nway Oo Ko, a deputy chairman of All Burma Federation of Student Union, ABFSU (Upper Burma), and Ko Hein Win Zaw, a chairman of Monywa University Union, were indicted under section 18 along with U Myint Aung. The township judge, U Khin Maung Win, sentenced Ko Nway Oo Ko and Ko Hein Win Zaw to a 30,000 Kyat fine or one month imprisonment. The two student leaders paid the fine and were thus released.
The case of the Letpadaung demonstrators takes place in a broader context of threats, arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment of peaceful human rights defenders and dissidents throughout the country.
On 7 August 2012, U Sein Aung, U Aye Thein and U Win Swe Myint were arrested without warrant after staging a peaceful demonstration against streets vendors’ relocation in Mandalay. The three of them were charged under article 505 (b) of the Penal Code and Section 18 of the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Act. They were denied release on bail and spent 177 days in prison including two days in solitary confinement. On 12 June 2013, the Chan Aye Thar Zen Township Court sentenced Ko Aye Thein, Ko Sein Aung, Ko Win Swe Myint to one year and three months imprisonment and Ko Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Ma Nwe Nwe Oo, Ma Ni Ni Aung, and Ma The The to three months imprisonment.
On 25 March 2013, Ko Ye Min Oo was taken by an anonymous group at 9pm from U Sasana’s monastery, Bahan Township, Yangon where he stays. Following the arrest Ko Ye Min Oo was missing for five days. It was discovered later that he had been held in Insein prison in Yangon. Ko Ye Min Oo since explained he was not able to access a lawyer until the first day he was brought to court, which is also the same day he learned about the charges against him. As a result, he was not able to adequately prepare for the court hearing. He is now facing charges under section 505 (b) of the Penal Code in three different courts (Bahan, Sanchaung, and Thakata Township Courts).
- “Anti-Letpadaung Mine Activists Condemn Detained Protesters’ Sentences,” The Irrawaddy, available at http://bit.ly/10Sg4p4
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, UN Doc.A/56/156, July 2001, para. 39(f)
- Submission of evidence to Myanmar Government’s Letpadaung Investigation Commission, Lawyers Network and Justice Trust, 28 January 2013, available at: http://bit.ly/12HNlXg
- Submission of evidence to Myanmar Government’s Letpadaung Investigation Commission, Op.Cit
- Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 22nd Session, available at: http://bit.ly/12HXvqK
- “Burma/Myanmar: New Forms of Control and Threats to Freedoms of Expression, Assembly and Association amidst Reforms Fanfare,” Forum Asia, available at http://bit.ly/10SitQM, and “Arbitrary Arrests in Burma: a tool to repress critical voices,” AAPP (B), available at http://bit.ly/Ps3mp0
- “Letpadaung Farmers Beaten, Shot at for Plowing Fields,” The Irrawaddy, available at http://bit.ly/10SeWlk
- “Hundreds March to Press for Letpadaung Protesters’ Release,” RFA, available at http://bit.ly/10Sf5FB