Rare Praise for Human Rights Body After Call for Letpadan Justice

By Lawi Weng 14 September 2015

RANGOON — The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) has received rare praise after it called on the Burmese government late last week to take action against police officers who brutally cracked down on a group of peaceful student protestors earlier this year.

Lawyer Thein Than Oo, a member of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the commission—long criticized as spineless—had helped rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the public with its statement on Friday.

“They did not stand on the side of the government, they stood instead on the side of the people. For us, we welcome and support their stand,” said the lawyer, who is providing legal counsel to some of the students who were jailed following the crackdown. “We found that they conducted a good investigation. We can say that their report is fair. This will do good things for their image.”

Thein Than Oo did not, however, hold out hope that the commission’s call for justice would be heeded by the government, though he added that it might go some way toward exonerating the dozens of students on trial and facing charges linked to the March 10 crackdown.

The MNHRC was formed by President Thein Sein, and has frequently had its independence called into question.

Its statement on Friday accused police of failing to following procedure when they violently dismantled the student protest in Letpadan, a town located some 80 miles northwest of Rangoon in Pegu Division.

The statement also said disproportionately harsh charges had been brought against the students, who at most, according to the commission, should face charges under Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law.

About 50 students remain behind bars at a prison in neighboring Tharrawaddy Township, awaiting a verdict in their cases, while some 20 others have been released on bail.

The MNHRC’s investigation included documents and footage of the crackdown, as well interviews with 38 people involved in the incident, including both student protestors and police officers. Pegu Division authorities did not cooperate with the probe, according to the commission’s statement.

The investigation found nothing to indicate that student protestors had verbally instigated the police to prompt the officers to violence. The trigger for the crackdown, according to the investigation, was a water bottle thrown at police as they blocked students’ attempt to march from Letpadan to Rangoon. The March 10 crackdown was preceded by a nine-day standoff between police and the students, who had marched more than 300 miles from Mandalay to protest a National Education Law that they were pushing to have amended.

The MNHRC statement on Friday was the most explicit condemnation of a police action ever issued by the commission, which was formed in 2011 and has shied away from strident criticism of the government or its appendages in a number of instances over the years.

Dr. Nyan Zaw, who is a member of the MNHRC, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that “we hope they will take action against those who violated the law.”

In the immediate aftermath of the crackdown, presidential spokesman Ye Htut defended the police action as lawful, an assertion disputed by Nyan Zaw.

“Police have their handbook about what to do when they disperse a crowd. They have a procedure for it. If they did not act based on their procedure, this means they violated the law. Therefore, we are asking that action be taken,” he said, adding that he hoped the commission’s work would lead the Tharrawaddy court to be more lenient in its sentencing of the students.

“For us, we cannot do anything about the charges against the students. But the case of their punishment could be reduced, we hope, after the issuance of our report,” Nyan Zaw said.