On Human Rights Day, Burma Activists Say More Work to Do

By San Yamin Aung 10 December 2013

RANGOON — Activists in Burma say that although the country’s human rights situation is better now than it was under decades of oppressive military rule, rights abuses persist in the Southeast Asian nation.

Burma marked International Human Rights Day on Tuesday, 65 years to the date that the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“In the past, we didn’t have the chance to say what we wanted. Now, compared to the past, we are beginning to have a chance, but not fully,” said Thein Swe, a member of Parliament who was jailed six months for participating in a protest on Human Rights Day in 1991.

On that day 22 years ago, students from Rangoon University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology (now called Yangon Technical University) organized a demonstration to show their support for Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. At the time, she was under house arrest in Rangoon.

The peaceful demonstration in 1991 began on the Rangoon University campus, with protestors demanding the release of Suu Kyi and all other activists detained by the government for voicing pro-democracy sentiments, including the prominent student leader Min Ko Naing.

The demonstration continued for two days and threatened to spread to universities and colleges in other cities. Perhaps fearing a repeat of the nationwide uprising in 1988 that unseated Gen Ne Win, Burma’s military regime closed higher education institutions across the country.

They arrested several hundred students who had participated in the demonstrations as part of the crackdown. More than 100 of those detainees were sentenced to between 10 and 20 years’ imprisonment by a military court.

Despite a notably improved human rights situation in Burma today, Thein Swe said abuses continue throughout the country, including widespread land confiscation by the military and powerful business interests.

“We need to keep trying to fully realize human rights. People need to understand more about human rights,” Thein Swe said.

Bo Bo Han, who was jailed 15 years for his role in organizing the Dec. 10, 1991, protest, said that freedom of expression and association remained limited in Burma.

“Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law should not exist. As long as the article exists and arrests are made under that law, full human rights is not possible,” he said.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) says 130 activists have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law, which was adopted in December 2011 and requires that would-be demonstrators get permission from the government prior to staging any organized assembly. A total of 57 activists have been jailed for protesting without authorization, according to the association.

“Challenges for many individuals and communities still remain,” Matthew Hedges, the British Embassy’s deputy head of mission, said in a press release on Tuesday. “For example, I note the increasing number of people charged and convicted in 2013 under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. It is our hope that the law will be brought in line with international standards following discussions in Parliament.”

The book “10D,” which details the lives of more than 30 students who participated in the Nobel Peace demonstration on Dec. 10, 1991, was released on Tuesday.