This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 11 March 2015.
The excessive violence used against peaceful protesters in Letpadan and Yangon, and the ill treatment subjected to students, journalists, monks and ambulance workers among others by both police and paramilitaries shows the continuing need for a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
"ARTICLE 19 calls upon Member States of the Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Myanmar. The events over recent days have shown the stark problems that remain in the country, where the police and resurrected paramilitary groups can effectively act with total impunity," said Thomas Hughes, executive director of ARTICLE 19.
ARTICLE 19, Burma Partnership and Equality Myanmar have communicated with six UN Special Rapporteurs several times since the beginning of February, flagging the potential for the crackdown on peaceful student protesters to spiral, particularly in the count down to the parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Unfortunately that crackdown has grown significantly in recent days.
On 6 March 2015, the President's Office posted on their Facebook page a photo of Article 128 of the colonial-era 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides that the government can use civilian men to break up assemblies (approved or otherwise) and "arrest" or "confine" participants.
We are highly concerned of reports that "Swan Ah Shin", a paramilitary group that was used by previous military governments to quash protests such as during the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" has now been resurrected by the Government in a form to crush dissenting peaceful assemblies. "Swan Ah Shin" members are sometimes identified by an armband with the word "duty" on, but are otherwise unidentified and allowed to act freely by the police.
On 6 March, peaceful protesters outside City Hall, Yangon, were seen being abused, such as by being placed in chokeholds, by either plainclothes police or members of "Swan Ah Shin". On 8 March, plainclothes police or "Swan Ah Shin" members reportedly broke up a peaceful assembly in Hmawbi Township due to it having not received prior approval. The peaceful assembly of 20 students were protesting against police violence towards other student protesters.
Similar plainclothes interventions occurred in Sule Pagoda (5 March) and Letpadan (6 March). At least three participants were arrested. The need for prior permission to assemble is regarded as unnecessary under international law. Myanmar's Right to Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law is so unclear and in effect retains a regime in which organisers need permission and face long prison terms if they do not get it.
On 10 March, 500 uniformed police responded with baton charges against peaceful student protesters in Letpadan who were attempting to exit through barbed wire that had been constructed by authorities to hold them inside a monastery. The students were being held in Letpadan, which is 120km from Yangon, to prevent them getting to the city of Yangon. The police used excessive force, beating and kicking students and others, including monks, who had fallen on the ground. Those students and participants that did not try to leave the monastery were captured inside and bound with ropes, with those who surrendered to the police being subjected to ill-treatment.
The police employed excessive use of force against media workers reporting on the protests. The staff of two ambulances sent to help the wounded were reportedly ill-treated too, and those injured inside the ambulances were subjected to further ill-treatment. There is information that 127 participants, including some journalists, were taken away in police transporters, but unclear as to what charges were brought, if any.
ARTICLE 19 urges the Government of Myanmar to:
- Publicly state that the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters will not be tolerated
- Carry out effective and impartial investigations into all cases of alleged ill-treatment and excessive use of force against demonstrators, journalists, ambulance staff and those receiving health treatment, and bring those responsible to justice
- Immediately dissolve all paramilitary groups and bring those members responsible for violence to justice
- Repeal Article 128 of the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure
- Immediately release all detainees, including journalists.