Guest Column

Gov’t Losing Its Way on National Reconciliation

By Bo Kyi 7 March 2019

On Feb. 12—Union Day—in Loikaw, Kayah State, police marked proceedings by firing rubber bullets into a crowd of demonstrators who were peacefully protesting against the construction of a statue of General Aung San. There has been no information on whether the government provided any assistance to those injured by police. The demonstrators feel these statues are not representative of their own independence and ethnic struggles. Previous statues of Aung San in Mon, Kachin and Chin states were also met with protests. By Feb. 21 the government had opened 86 cases against 55 youths over the Kayah protests; the cases were later withdrawn and the protesters released. The protests and construction of the statues has halted for a month while the two sides negotiate.

The repression of these protests in such a violent manner is short-sighted. It will only inflame tensions, and add weight to the protesters’ claims that the “Bamar” government does not care about their struggle. This has dire ramifications for the already stalled national reconciliation process. The firing of rubber bullets into a crowd of unarmed peaceful protesters, on the day that the Myanmar government is supposed to be celebrating national unity, is as ironic as it is barbaric. Yet this is no isolated case; the government response in Kayah State provides a blueprint for the repression of ethnic identity across the country.

In Rakhine State, increased violence between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) is highly concerning. This outbreak of violence has also led to an increase in the repression of civilians due to alleged association with the AA. So far, 40 people have been arrested under the 1908 Unlawful Association Act 17(1) in Rakhine State alone, including 24 IDPs who fled Chin State due to fighting near their homes. Around 6,000 civilians have recently been displaced due to the armed clashes. The most recent spate of arrests is not helping the situation; it has only exacerbated an already tense situation in Rakhine State and is only likely to increase the local population’s sympathy for the AA.

Meanwhile, protesters in Kachin State continue to be arrested and detained, be it for holding anti-war protests or, as was more recently the case, organizing protests against the Myitsone Dam. The arrest in February of Bernadette Ja Hkawng for violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL) while protesting against the dam came in the same week that the World Kachin Congress bestowed its inaugural Kachin human rights awards on three Kachin community leaders who are currently serving jail sentences over last year’s anti-war protest.

Such arrests and repression are not always political, or aimed solely against ethnic groups. In February, seven students from Yadanabon University in Mandalay Region were arrested and sentenced to three months in jail with hard labor. The students had burned portraits of officials as a protest against a lack of campus safety following the murder of a student near the campus in December last year.

The rationale behind these arrests is weak and does not stand up to scrutiny. It should be clear to all lawmakers and politicians that the arrests will not help national reconciliation. Nor will these arrests stop the protests, as the country’s political history shows. After the bloody suppression of the 88 movement, dissent did not stop. After the bloody suppression of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, dissent did not stop. Nor will dissent stop in Kayah State after the firing of rubber bullets into an unarmed crowd.

The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), so many of whose members are former political prisoners, knows all too well that you cannot stop democratic protests with violence and repression. To stop such protests you must tackle their root causes by holding discussions with demonstrators. To crack down on these protests as it has done is not only morally wrong—no one should be jailed or beaten for exercising their democratic rights—but also a terrible move politically; the party is doing itself no favors. National reconciliation in Myanmar is a difficult enough process; we don’t need the government making it harder by deepening and exacerbating long-held grievances.

Nor is national reconciliation helped by the government’s determination to incarcerate journalists, as in the cases against the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Myanmar Now journalist Swe Win has also suffered for his reporting, having to undergo an unnecessarily protracted trial after being accused of defaming ultranationalist monk U Wirathu by one of his supporters. The trial further demonstrates the government’s poor commitment to freedom of expression.

Cracking down on protest in this way is politically expensive, costing the NLD precious support in ethnic areas. The NLD had huge popular support in 2015, but it may not be able to count on this backing come 2020. If the rights of ethnic citizens are not of concern to the NLD, then maybe purely political considerations will be. This clumsy, heavy-handed approach only fuels the mistrust of people—especially ethnic people—in the NLD-led government.

These actions serve to highlight the lack of justice on offer in Myanmar today. The laws used to detain and arrest these protesters, students and civilians are not befitting of a democratic government. The laws were written by a British colonial government in order to stifle dissent and maintain the status quo. It is unethical for such inherently repressive laws to be used against civilians. Moreover, it is perverse for the NLD to imprison the next generation of activists using the very laws under which they themselves were jailed.

The Unlawful Association Act, Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, the Telecommunications Code, the PAPPL, and other repressive laws are all evidence of a legal system that stifles what it is supposed to protect. If the NLD wants to take meaningful steps toward building a real democracy, it needs to amend and repeal such legislation, or at the very least, stop tormenting ethnic civilians under archaic laws no longer fit for purpose.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.