Guest Column

Prisons Are Not for Journalists, Farmers and Activists 

By Bo Kyi 2 November 2018

What is the purpose of a prison? Prisons are designed to protect society from dangerous individuals that pose a risk to the public. What a prison is not, is a shield to be used to protect those in power from criticism.

In the United States, there are many who are dissatisfied with President Donald Trump. There are many who have criticized him, who have made both offensive remarks about him and his presidency. There are even those who have desecrated his picture and distributed video clips of this on YouTube. Yet as the US is a democratic society and understands that protection of free speech and the freedom to criticize those in power is the essence of a democratic society, these people were not arrested. In the US, like every democratic society, dissent is not considered a threat to public safety, nor are protesters incarcerated in prison as if they were violent criminals.

This does not happen in the US, but it happens in Myanmar. Activists, journalists and protesters are routinely arrested and put in prison for speaking out against those in power. These arrests arise from an authoritarian mindset, not a democratic mindset. In Myanmar, people who speak freely or protest against their leaders are liable to be arrested under Articles 505 (b) or 124 (a) of the archaic and repressive penal code.

If you are a government, there are people who will support you and there are people who will oppose you. That is the nature of rule. A government should attempt to change people’s negative perceptions through constructive action, not through repression. Arbitrary detention is a human rights abuse, and it will not help your cause.

Those in power in Myanmar today should take a lesson from the past. Under previous military regimes, detention, torture and repression were rife. As a result, widespread international pressure was applied. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many other political prisoners were released and allowed to participate in the political process, these countries reduced their pressure and eased sanctions. The release of political prisoners was one of the measurements used to judge Myanmar’s democratic transition. The same standard should apply today. Pressure was lessened upon the release of political prisoners; it should be reapplied now following the arrests of journalists, activists and human rights violations.

Indeed, international pressure is already being applied. The EU is trying to withdraw its special trade benefit with Myanmar. Australia, Canada and the US have already sanctioned generals who have perpetrated human rights violations. Those in power need to be reminded that the imprisonment of journalists and activists is wrong. Further, the arrest of activists jeopardizes the hard work that many people have put into Myanmar’s national reconciliation process.

When journalists, such as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Reuters, are sentenced to years in prison for reporting on military abuses, it shows the regime is not committed to a democratic transition. When those speaking out about government ministers on social media are arrested, it shows the government does not respect the civil and political rights of its citizens.

It is not just cruel that activists and journalist are imprisoned; it is a disservice to the country. Monitoring and imprisoning activists is not cheap. As schools, healthcare, and infrastructure suffer from a severe lack of resources, the government is wasting money by deploying police to limit access to information and constrain free expression. Public taxes should be spent helping the public, not detaining them.

Moreover, prisons in Myanmar are poorly managed. They are overly crowded and human rights abuses are common. Prisoners often suffer physical abuse and do not receive adequate medical care. The shortcomings of the prison system are the sole responsibility of the government, Parliament and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Prisons are built to contain violent offenders, not to bully, intimidate and detain those peacefully expressing their opinions. Prisons are supposed to keep society safe from dangerous individuals who pose a threat. What threat or risk of harm does a protester, journalist or democratic activist pose? Prisons are wrongfully used in Myanmar to detain, imprison and abuse activists and those critical of the regime, rather than containing threats to society.

Bo Kyi is the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)