Human Rights

How One Father’s Letters to the Government Got Him Convicted

By Matthew Thiman & Courtney Svoboda, Tyler Giannini 7 April 2015

Shortly after his daughter’s death, Brang Shawng sat down to write the first of two letters that would eventually get him convicted. He wrote to the president of Myanmar first, and then to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wanting to know what had happened to his daughter, whom he believed had been shot by the Myanmar military.

“A submission is made with great respect,” he wrote to the president, “to find out the truth in connection with the killing, without a reason, of an innocent student, my daughter Ma Ja Seng Ing, who wore a white and green school uniform.”

In the letter, he recalled the day in his village clearly. It was Sept. 13, 2012, in an area of conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military in the north of the country. A column of Myanmar Army soldiers had been in the village since before dawn. Late that afternoon, as the column was preparing to leave, there was a loud bomb blast. Then suddenly, soldiers shooting, and the sound of shouting and crying as villagers tried to take cover.

“It was just like the end of the world,” Brang Shawng wrote.

He hid with his wife and two children in their home. But one of their children was not with them: his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing. She had been on her way home from school with friends when the bomb went off and shooting ensued. She and a few others, including a teacher, took shelter, crouching in a nearby ditch behind a thin, hanging tarpaulin.

According to eyewitness accounts, two soldiers approached the hiding place, screaming for the group to come out. Shots were fired. In the moments after, the teacher found Ja Seng Ing bleeding so heavily that the blood stained the ground.

When soldiers brought Brang Shawng to his daughter, she was pale in her green and white school uniform. Three hours would pass before they reached the hospital; Ja Seng Ing died on the operating table.

Two independent investigations—one by a coalition of Kachin community-based organizations called the Truth Finding Committee and another by Fortify Rights—support Brang Shawng’s conclusion that the military killed his daughter. The military, however, alleges in its own investigation that a mine laid by the Kachin Independence Army killed Ja Seng Ing.

Almost five months after writing his letters, Brang Shawng received a response. The Myanmar military was bringing a criminal case against him for making “false charges.”

Over the course of two years, according to Fortify Rights, Brang Shawng appeared in court 45 times to face those charges. Many hearings were canceled because the charging military officer failed to appear.

Finally, on Feb. 13, 2015, there was a ruling. The Hpakant Township Court convicted Brang Shawng, giving him the option to serve a six-month prison term or pay a 50,000 kyats (US$50) fine. Brang Shawng is appealing his conviction. As he said in one of his letters, he wishes for an army that “is not the army that shoots at a student and the people, but gives protection to the people.” And as he wrote in the other, he does not want other parents to experience the suffering that he has endured.

Even before Brang Shawng’s conviction, we at the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Harvard Law School had been following this case closely. In December 2014, the IHRC, along with Amnesty International, Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and Physicians for Human Rights, addressed an open letter to President Thein Sein calling for the charges against Brang Shawng to be dropped. This case and recent events highlight the need for action to prevent military intimidation of rights defenders and to ensure an environment in which individuals and communities can safely speak out about rights abuses.

Tyler Giannini is co-director of the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Harvard Law School, and Matthew Thiman and Courtney Svoboda are students in the IHRC.