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National Human Rights Commission and UN urge justice for Burmese student protesters

People protest against what they believe to be violence inflicted on students who were demonstrating against an education law at Letpadan on 10 March 2015, in Mandalay
People protest against what they believe to be violence inflicted on students who were demonstrating against an education law at Letpadan on 10 March 2015, in Mandalay

REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 14 September 2015.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes calls from Myanmar's National Human Rights Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for the government to deliver justice for the Letpadan student protesters.

"With elections coming in less than two months, dozens of student protesters remain in prison for simply protesting against the government's draft education bill. The rare statement by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission and the UN High Commissioner's prioritisation of Myanmar in his opening speech today demonstrate how important it is for the government to free the protesters and investigate the unnecessary and excessive force used by police," said Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director.

In his opening speech at the UN's 30th Human Rights Council on 14 September, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said:

"In Myanmar, the promise of democratic transition in November's general election is being undermined by the detention and convictions of student activists, farmers, unionists and human rights defenders – people who are using their newfound rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to protest against injustice and participate in the political sphere."

In a statement issued on 11 September, Myanmar's National Human Rights Commission said in reference to the treatment of student protesters:

"Making arrests through beatings goes against official police procedures … Legal action must be taken against police force members who didn't follow the correct procedures."

The statement also said police violated their procedures by attacking the students, hitting them with clubs and dragging them to police trucks.

Around 81 students are being prosecuted under colonial laws on maintaining "public order". The students' pre-trial detention has been lengthy due to administrative delays. Many students have missed or will miss their exams, placing their academic careers in trouble as a result of the crackdown. Human rights defenders are concerned that the effect on the students' studies will dissuade other students and their parents from voicing their concerns about education policy.

The students were taking part in a peaceful protest procession in March 2015 against a draft education bill that had failed to consult with students as key stakeholders. Allegations of the use of excessive force by the police were widespread, with photos dominating the media of many police with clubs violently attacking young students.

ARTICLE 19 has developed a publication outlining the international standards applicable to protests, including the use of force, here.

The public statement by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission - a body formed of former military and bureaucrats associated with the current government – is a rare criticism of government policy. Usually, the Commission only commends the government, such as for their recent commitment to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Unfortunately, their statement is undermined by its calls on the government to prosecute students who removed barricades among other acts.

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