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Myanmar judiciary under fire for harsh sentencing

No improvement on military regime, says Asian commission

Myanmar judiciary under fire for harsh sentencing

Protesters vent anger at the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Myanmar (Soe Than Win / AFP)

John Zaw, Mandalay and Thomas Toe, Yangon

August 16, 2013

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The continuing arrests of activists in Myanmar, some of whom have been handed lengthy jail terms, is at odds with the government’s claims of democratic reform, said a rights group today, warning that the vestiges of military rule remain.

An urgent appeal from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released this week highlighted the case of Aung Soe, an activist from the Yangon People’s Support Network, who was sentenced to 11 and a half years in early July for opposing the controversial China-backed Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing division.

The group said the trial that led to the sentencing was “patently unfair,” and that it “closely resembles those of the decades of military rule in Burma [Myanmar].”

Aung Soe is among a number of activists who since last year have been using non-violent protest techniques alongside farmers living close to the mine, which is co-run by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, and Wanabao, a subsidiary of China’s biggest weapons’ manufacturer, Norinco.  

Myint Aye, executive director of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Association, said the arrests were in violation of the 2008 constitution.

“The continuing arrest of activists and decision to award lengthy jail terms highlights that there is no balance in judicial practice, no balance in political stability and no human rights with international standards,” he said.

Rights groups say that the law on public assembly introduced last year is being systematically used to silence critics, as a new form of authoritarianism creeps into Myanmar, whose reforms since President Thein Sein came to office in 2011 have been lauded.

Hla Maung Shwe, from the EU-funded Myanmar Peace Centre, says he does not agree with the AHRC’s assessment of the current situation.

“The expectation of the people may be too high and they will use different ways to reach their goal in the liberalization process,” he said.

“But we need to take heed of the existing law whether right or wrong as it may have effects. We need to upgrade the capacity, mutual understanding, patience and cooperation.” 

An annual report released on August 12 by parliament’s rule of law committee, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for greater independence of the judiciary from the state.

Yangon-based land rights lawyer, Pho Phyu, said corruption within the judiciary was one problem.

“The government should expand the association, elect well trained judges and should provide them with an attractive salary to avoid corruption in order to be an independent judicial system.”

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