Human Rights

A Year After the Brutal Student Protest Crackdown at Letpadan

By Champa Patel 10 March 2016

It was one year ago today that the world got another sad reminder of how far authorities in Myanmar will still go to stifle dissent. Months of peaceful demonstrations against a new education law culminated in the southern town of Letpadan on March 10, 2015, where hundreds of students had gathered to prepare for a final march to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.

The Myanmar authorities—fearing the threat of an outspoken movement just months before a crucial national election—had shipped in scores of riot police to Letpadan to block the students before the march could even begin. When some of the protesters tried to break down a police barricade, an already tense situation turned violent. Police proceeded to viciously beat dozens of protesters—eyewitnesses described how even students who had fallen to the ground were hit with batons.

It was an outrageous example of excessive use of force by the police. But instead of holding the officers to account for violating human rights, Myanmar’s authorities have over the past year led a relentless crackdown against the very people who were on the receiving end of the violence.

Scores of students were arrested in the aftermath of the protest on March 10 last year—today, 45 of them remain in detention with their trials ongoing. They face years in prison if found guilty, yet to date there is no evidence that they did anything other than peacefully express their opinions. Amnesty International will continue to call for their unconditional and immediate release. However, the authorities’ crackdown did not end in Letpadan. Since then more than 100 student protesters, leaders and their supporters have been charged with a range of criminal offenses.

One of them is Phyoe Phyoe Aung, the charismatic 27-year-old secretary general of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). She was in Letpadan on the day of the protests and is one of the 45 who have languished in prison since. Phyoe Phyoe Aung has a remarkable life story and is no stranger to prisons in Myanmar—in fact, neither is her family. She is the daughter of Ne Win, an activist who spent the first 16 years of his daughter’s life in a cell for his pro-democracy activities.

In 2007, Phyoe Phyoe Aung and her then-boyfriend Lin Htet Naing were forced into hiding after taking part in the “Saffron Revolution,” which ended with a brutal police crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy protests across Myanmar. Finally arrested in 2008, she showed her determination by refusing to wear the prison uniform behind bars, which led to her being sent into solitary confinement as punishment.

She and Lin Htet Naing were reunited on their release in 2012, and got married in January 2015. Even if both are now deprived of their freedom once again (Lin Htet Naing has since also been imprisoned), Phyoe Phyoe Aung has vowed to not give up the fight for human rights in Myanmar.

As the one-year anniversary of the Letpadan crackdown approached, the Myanmar authorities tightened the screws on student activists again. Just in the past two months, at least eight student union leaders, protesters and supporters have been arrested or face new charges. Among them is Nilar Thein, a former prisoner of conscience, who in late February was arrested for a peaceful demonstration in support of the students.

The persistent efforts to suppress the student movement cannot be seen in isolation. Despite what you might have heard, Myanmar is still a country where human rights are under a sustained assault. Authorities rely on a range of draconian laws to target, harass and imprison anyone they perceive as a threat—a situation that has only gotten worse over the past two years. The net of repression has been cast widely—those targeted include journalists, land activists, farmers, trade unionists and opposition politicians. Amnesty International is aware of almost 100 prisoner of conscience still behind bars in Myanmar.

But the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that is set to form a new government and take power at the start of April, has made encouraging promises to make human rights a priority once in office. They could send a real signal of intent by immediately freeing all those who have been imprisoned for nothing but peacefully expressing an opinion and quashing the trumped up charges pending against all the students and their supporters.

In the longer term, the new government should repeal or amend the range of laws used to silence activists. Doing so would also send a message to the still powerful military that a new day is dawning for human rights.

The international community—including Myanmar’s regional neighbors—also have a key role to play in keeping up the pressure on Naypyidaw to respect and protect human rights.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung once told Amnesty International that her hopes were for “a society with peace and prosperity, happiness for the people, with human dignity and human rights.” We could not agree more—it’s time for those in charge in Myanmar to make sure that this vision becomes reality, starting by setting free the student protesters.

Champa Patel is Amnesty International’s director of Southeast Asia.