Victims of Student Crackdown Meet Human Rights Commission

By Yen Saning 27 July 2015

RANGOON — The Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC) on Monday met with a group of students who were victims of a high-profile crackdown earlier this year on education reform protestors in Letpadan, Pegu Division, a week after the commission released a statement in response to a complaint lodged by the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network.

Students from the Democracy Education Initiative Committee—which helped organize the protest—say they plan to sue the authorities who ordered the March 10 crackdown on the peaceful protestors, according to Aung Nay Paing, a leading member of the committee.

Thirteen out of the 18 students that undersigned a complaint to the MHRC met with commission members on Monday, with four of the no-show signatories currently evading arrest warrants and the fifth incarcerated in Mandalay.

Aung Min Khaing, a high school student from Shwebo, Sagain Division, was one of Monday’s attendees and recounted the March 10 crackdown for MHRC members in Rangoon.

The 18 students had filed a case with the MHRC on July 8, providing testimony from victims of the crackdown and making a case that authorities’ brutality was unlawful and in violation of the Constitution’s Article 354, which guarantees the right to peacefully assemble.

The students also object to prosecutors’ decision to charge the students under Burma’s Penal Code.

“If one does not have permission to protest, one is only due to be sentenced for [a maximum] six months under Article 18 of the [Peaceful] Assembly Law,” said 16-year-old Aung Min Khaing. “But we are being charged with five articles from the Penal Code instead of Article 18. … Although they should have brought us to police station and charged us first, we were brought to prison straightaway after brutal beatings. We lost our rights when they sent us to prison.”

Members of the MHRC told Aung Min Khaing that the commission would proceed in accordance with the law covering its mandate, and the MHRC said it would release a statement about the crackdown and its aftermath on Wednesday.

Aung Min Khaing is currently studying in Pegu Division’s Paungde Township for his final year of high school, Grade 11.

Separately, the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network also filed a case on July 6, urging the MHRC to look into reports of poor conditions and rights abuses perpetrated against student protestors detained at Tharrawaddy Prison, also in Pegu Division. Students and their parents have said some of the detainees have been subjected to solitary confinement; that insufficient medical treatment is being provided; and that authorities are arbitrarily confiscating personal effects, among other complaints.

The MNRC released a statement on July 20 in response to the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network’s complaint, saying that three members of the commission had visited Tharrawaddy Prison on July 13-14, when they conducted interviews with 25 detained students and their supporters and five prison staffers, as well as speaking to a patient at Rangoon General Hospital on July 15 who was previously imprisoned at Tharrawaddy.

The MNRC statement largely downplayed the allegations leveled against prison authorities, noting that medical treatment was provided to the detainees on several occasions and regular checkups were being made available, and contending that confiscation of personal items, including cigarettes and betel nut, was justified under the 1894 Prison Law and a 2011 directive by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the nation’s prison system.

The statement confirmed that seven detainees had been placed in solitary confinement for two weeks beginning in late June, but said authorities were within their rights to mete out the punishment under the Prison Law, after the detainees were caught multiple times in possession of contraband.

Thirty-five men were prohibited from seeing their families for between two and six weeks after smuggling in cheroots, cigarettes, lighters and betel nut, but the MHRC statement said that too was lawful under Article 784 of the Prison Law.

Robert San Aung, a leading member of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network who is representing the detained students, expressed dissatisfaction with the commission’s findings.

“The MNRC statement does not reflect the current situation and is incomplete,” he told The Irrawaddy, noting that no interviews were conducted with the lawyers who filed the case.

“The directive is superseding the law in this case,” he said, referring to the 2011 Ministry of Home Affairs directive that the MHRC noted appeared to contradict the Prisons Law, which does allow inmates to possess cigarettes. “Why is smoking and betel nut prohibited? This is a violation of human rights.”

The students who smuggled in prohibited items have also been charged under Article 42 of the Prison Law, but the MHRC asked that prison authorities “kindly reconsider” those charges.

Regarding allegations that authorities were arbitrarily confiscating the possessions of some of the student detainees, Robert San Aung said action could be taken under Article 409 of the Penal Code, covering the loss of personal property entrusted to a public servant.

The MHRC in its statement did make a handful of recommendations to prison authorities, including bolstering the prison hospital with more staff and supplies; implementing a more precise system for logging which items have been confiscated by prison officials; and the return of items “unconcerned” with trial evidence or otherwise prohibited.