Yangon protesters decry international “bullying” as persecuted Rohingya migrants flee for other Southeast Asian nations
Following a student demonstration in 1998, Khin Cho Myint was arrested after being given up by one of her colleagues. She was interrogated, sitting on a stool, in Insein prison for 48 hours before being sent to solitary confinement for one week.
Four months later she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“During 1997 and 1998 my role in All Burma Federation of Student Union [ABFSU] was to keep active communication between key members in Myanmar and key members who had fled to Thailand,” Myint told to Al Jazeera.
“I was charged with section 5/j, of the Emergency Provision Act and section 17/1 of the Unlawful Association Act.”
Both mental and physical torture was terrible. But luckily I was not beaten when I was in interrogation and in prison.
As Myanmar opens to the world, political prisoners remain a major human rights issue in the country. Despite Myanmar President Thien Sien’s promise to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, the number of those behind bars has again climbed and activist groups are expressing growing concern.
“Not only did he fail to keep this promise, since then scores of peaceful activists, human rights defenders and journalists have been arrested or imprisoned in connection with their peaceful activities,” Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher-campaigner for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.
Myint was released after five years and nine months. She now works with the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), also known by its acronym AAPP, to help those still in prison.
“Both mental and physical torture was terrible. But luckily I was not beaten when I was in interrogation and in prison,” she said.
As of Saturday, AAPP has identified 170 political prisoners inside Myanmar. An additional 78 await trial in prisons after being arrested for participating in the March student-led protests against a bill centralising higher education.
Many of the participants in the March protest have been arrested under section 18 of the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act (PAPPA). Like the two laws used to charge Myint in 1998, and despite being amended in 2014, section 18 continues to be levied against political activists.
Stressing the need for stability before the election, Ambassador Kyaw Tin, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the UN, acknowledged the need for change.
“Existing laws’ penalty clauses, these need to be amended … there are so many laws that need to be amended. There are still so many undemocratic laws,” he told Al Jazeera.
Trajectory of change
Since 2011, the government has instituted a series of reforms, which increased the space for political opposition. These changes and promises of continued improvement prompted the easing of sanctions by the international community, including those imposed by the United States and the European Union.
“We should all welcome Myanmar’s reintroduction and reintegration into the international community and look to see how those processes will ultimately work in the favour of people,” Rory Mungoven, head of UN Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ Asia-Pacific section, told Al Jazeera.
But not everyone feels optimistic about Myanmar’s trajectory. Activists on the ground see a different reality, where the government’s stated intentions do not match its behaviour.
“We had a lot of reservations about these reforms … but of course we all wanted to be optimistic, we wanted to give it a try,” Khin Ohmar, veteran of Myanmar’s 1988 protest movement, told Al Jazeera.
Ohmar, who is also one of the leading figures in the Burma Partnership human rights network, told Al Jazeera: “We wanted the regime to also have an opportunity … it was cautious but optimistic.”
But this hope has since dissipated. Ohmar explained how a distinction exists between civil society groups that work for political rights and other “capacity building” organisations.
Since the lifting of international sanctions, foreign investment has caused Myanmar’s economy to grow dramatically. Growth of gross domestic product for 2015 is forecast at 8.5 percent, having risen steadily from 3.6 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank.
However, since the majority of money goes through the capital Nay Pyi Taw, Ohmar noted that new financial resources for civil society groups are directed at the discretion of the regime.
Despite being included in national dialogues when Myanmar began opening in 2010, human rights activists say that comprehensive and lasting rights-based reforms, along with the groups that promote them, were never a priority.
“Social justice groups began to feel like they had been used as a ‘tick box’ by the international community and the government,” she continued.
UN Human Rights Council
The struggle between those who doubt the sincerity of the government promises on democratic processes and an international community that is eager to reintegrate Myanmar into the global economy has manifested at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Myanmar is currently listed with North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Eritrea under the Human Rights Council’s “Item 4” classification of serious human rights situations in need of the Council’s attention.
In recent years the Council has faced international pressure to remove Myanmar from the “Item 4” list, and with it the UN special rapporteur in charge of monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions.
“If you look at the previous three or four years compared to the previous military government, we have made drastic changes in terms of promotion of human rights,” Ambassador Tin, told Al Jazeera.
“We feel that if they want to take our issues to the Human Rights Council, it should be considered under Item 10, [which focuses on the need for ‘technical assistance and capacity building’] instead of Item 4,” said the ambassador.
Activists are concerned that the international community, including Western democracies, has traded empty promises for economic access to Myanmar. The reactions of international governments to the increase of political prisoners seem to supports these concerns.
“The international community is not raising their voice. They are not taking a stand… In the previous time [before the opening] … when one person was arrested you would see immediately that Washington or Ottawa or Brussels issued a statement,” explained Ohmar.
But today, said Ohmar, official condemnations are rare or nonexistent.
This is not to say the there should be a return to sanctions, as the opening has improved the lives of many.
“I personally have suffered from the sanctions all my life,” said Nay Lin Htike, a 40-year-old businessman who is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Htike owns Yangon cafe, and he told Al Jazeera that since the opening, tourism has increased dramatically, and with it the success of his business.
“I think sanctions actually delay the progress of democracy and democratic transition,” Htike said.
Ohmar agreed with her compatriot that nobody wants the sanctions back. But she said international pressure could still be applied by making political or economic engagement conditional on improved human rights standards.
Ahead of Myanmar’s first free elections in November 2015, and as the country opens further to the global economy, choices remain for the international community about trade-offs between human rights standards, economic opportunity, and international engagement.
“Governments must use [this opportunity] to ensure Myanmar’s prisoners of conscience are freed and not forgotten,” said Amnesty International’s Haigh.