The Myanmar government led by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has overseen the continuing harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of human rights defenders and activists since 2015, according to an Amnesty International report. The rights body has called on authorities “to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, drop all charges against those facing imprisonment solely for their peaceful activities, and urgently amend or repeal the repressive laws used to jail activists and human rights defenders.” The briefing, titled “I will not surrender: The criminalization of human rights defenders and activists in Myanmar,” highlights 16 cases of human rights defenders and activists who have been arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned in the last 18 months. They include students, a journalist, satirical performers, an environmental activist, a labor rights activist, trade union members and a Buddhist monk. At least 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019 alone, according to Athan, a Yangon-based civil society group.
Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s senior director for research, advocacy and policy, said four years after Suu Kyi came to power, Myanmar remains a country where the slightest criticism of the authorities can land you in jail. “After campaigning for human rights for decades and paying a high price for their own activism, it is shocking that Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have done so little to change military-era laws that are still being used to repress and punish critics,” Algar said in a statement. Amnesty said in many cases the complainants were military officers who used repressive laws to bring charges against people who criticized members of the armed forces. “I have no fear and will continue to tell the truth,” said Ashin Ariya Wuntha Bhiwun Sa, a Mandalay-based monk who has faced defamation lawsuits filed by the military. “They are only interested in defending their business interests,” he told UCA News. Amnesty is concerned that politically motivated arrests have continued and the pace of promised human rights reforms has stalled under a civilian-led government that came to power following a resounding victory in the 2015 general election. Alarmingly, such arrests have continued even as authorities grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s deeply alarming that the authorities are continuing to use repressive laws to arrest and detain activists and journalists amid a global pandemic,” said Algar. “No one should be arrested or imprisoned under these laws until such time as they can be repealed or amended in line with international human rights standards.” Amnesty urged the civilian government and the military to stop harassing human rights defenders and activists as the country prepares for elections expected to be held later this year. “Without genuine and meaningful reforms, more people will be harassed, intimidated and sent to jail simply for speaking their minds — especially if they highlight injustice, abusive laws or war crimes and other human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw,” said Algar. Myanmar’s military crackdown on dissidents comes as international pressure mounts over atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine. The crackdown has forced more than 700,000 members of the mostly Muslim community into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. The United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said military commanders must answer charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Having ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for decades, the military still wields enormous power through its control of defense, home affairs and border security, plus its guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats.
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