Abuse, Obstruction, Neglect: Letpadan, 7 Months Later

By Sean Gleeson 12 October 2015

RANGOON — Students jailed after the Letpadan crackdown remain in dire need of medical treatment and court proceedings against protesters have been delayed for frivolous reasons, lawyers and family members say.

At an emotional press conference in downtown Rangoon on Saturday, family members and fellow students sat in silence as presenters recounted the Mar. 10 police assault on student demonstrators and the condition of the 50 detainees who remain in remand at Thayawaddy Prison in Pegu Division.

Several parents wiped away tears while listening to a forensic account of the minutes leading up to the attack. A group of students stood dolefully in the rear, some donning the white armbands printed in the aftermath of the Letpadan attack to urge government respect for student rights—a short-lived campaign that foundered when Special Branch officers began interrogating participants.

Yee Yee Htwe, a teacher and mother of one of the detained students, spoke at length about the deficiencies of Burma’s education system, telling the audience that the nation’s students were “courageous heroes” for their efforts to overturn the National Education Law.

“They are giving up their life and making sacrifices for the good of others,” she said. “No parent wants to see their son or daughter in prison. We can’t sleep at night. We don’t know when they will be released, when they can go back to study. No one knows, no one can answer. Their lives are being wasted.”

Saturday’s press conference coincided with the release of a joint investigation into the Letpadan crackdown by Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic. Based on interviews with 25 eyewitnesses and an analysis of video and photographic documentation, the report concluded that incidents of violence among demonstrators in the moments before the police attack were isolated, and were quickly addressed by protest marshals.

The report found that police officers, by contrast, used excessive force during the attack on protesters, along with physically and verbally abusing individuals who had already submitted to custody, in what The Irrawaddy labeled at the time a “complete breakdown of police discipline”.

“It’s clear that in this case, justice has been flipped on its head,” said Matthew Bugher, the report’s lead author and researcher. “The police, rather than the students, are the ones who are primarily responsible for the violence that occurred on Mar. 10, and it’s the police and the Myanmar parties that should be facing accountability for their actions.”

The report noted that “no known disciplinary or criminal action” had been taken against police officers present at Letpadan, although the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), appointed by President Thein Sein, last month called for officers to be disciplined and said protesters should not be facing charges.

Amy Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, said attempts to meet with Letpadan police officers in the course of the investigation were denied. She added that the organization did not receive a response to the report from the office of President Thein Sein or the MNHRC.

The audience heard that some detainees were still showing signs of concussion after suffering head wounds from baton blows. Others had recurrent sleeping troubles, spinal cord injuries, migraines and permanent hearing loss. Instead of being granted access to trained medical professionals, the injured have been treated with over the counter medications.

Roger Normand, the executive director of Justice Trust, said that the case against the Letpadan protesters had been delayed numerous times, with the presiding judge walking out of proceedings on a number of occasions after disapproving of defense motions. At the most recent hearing, proceedings were adjourned for two to three months to consider the matter of police damage to a car used by students, pushing the trial out until after Burma’s Nov. 8 election.

A lawyer from the defense team, after a failed attempt to countersue police officers, has been summoned to court on charges of obstructing justice, which the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners suggested was “another attempt to draw out the Letpadan trial.” Khin Khin Kyaw told Saturday’s press conference that she was facing two years’ imprisonment and the revocation of her legal license.

“I have been pursued by the court for obstruction of justice, despite being given power of attorney by the students and acting in the interest of my clients,” she said. “I will not give up on my commitment. I will not be discouraged… I will be fighting for my clients. I have that duty and responsibility as a lawyer.”

Of the 127 protesters arrested on Mar. 10, 50 remain incarcerated at Thayawaddy Prison. All are facing charges under the Penal Code relating to unlawful assembly, rioting, incitement and assault of public servants, with a maximum combined jail term of nine and a half years. Student leaders are fearful of the outcome of the trial.

“I have no trust in the justice system as a Burmese citizen and a student,” Aung Nay Paing, one of the few executive members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions not currently in prison, told Saturday’s audience. “The judicial system is facing a lot of interference by the authorities… the students have been arrested without justice and without fairness.”

The National Education Law was passed by the Union Parliament in September 2014. In the face of escalating nationwide protests demanding legislative guarantees for independent student unions, an end to centralized curriculum decisions and a massive increase in public education funding, the government agreed to reform the law after meeting with students and education advocates.

Following the Letpadan crackdown, most student demands were rejected by the Union Parliament by the time the new national education bill was passed in June.