Silence or prison for Myanmar’s human rights defenders

Myanmar’s reforms are both limited and limiting.

For all the talk of reform, the Myanmar army remains beyond reproach, writes Baulk [Getty]
For all the talk of reform, the Myanmar army remains beyond reproach, writes Baulk [Getty]

The recent rape and murder of two volunteer teachers – Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkwn Nan Tsin – in Myanmar’s northern Shan State prompted condemnation from across the world. Demands for justice and accountability have been swift, and pointed.

The government of Myanmar’s response to these demands has been to initiate an investigation headed by the Minister for Home Affairs – an appointed representative of the institution standing accused of committing the crime. The message is clear; for all the talk of reform, the Myanmar army remains beyond reproach.   

On January 29, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) issued a statement threatening legal action against those accusing them of responsibility for the murders. It was a stark reminder of the repression under which their critics must operate in Myanmar.

Defending human rights

The information unearthed by organisations defending human rights, strikes at the heart of the Tatmadaw’s claims to legitimacy. For this reason, it is more vital than ever that they find common ground upon which to work – and that the international community supports this process.

As noted by Human Rights Watch, the last year has seen reversals of basic freedoms and democratic progress in Myanmar. The country’s reforms have not made the lives of women and girls any safer, particularly in ethnic communities.

Inside Story – Myanmar’s ‘crimes against humanity’

Nor have they made the work of human rights defenders any more secure. Seeking justice for crimes perpetrated by the Tatmadaw is as dangerous today as ever. Contrary to the beliefs of certain policy makers, Myanmar’s backsliding reform process belies the contention that economic development is the key driver of human development.

Organisations such as the Women’s League of Burma have continued to provide a wealth of evidence to show that human rights abuses are ongoing across the country, not least sexual violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw.

Since the resumption of conflict in June 2011, the number of sexual violence cases against women and girls in Kachin State alone stands at 70 – a number believed to be a fraction of the actual figure. The aftermath of the rape and murder of Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkwn Nan Tsin tells us a lot about why.

Some common themes

Listening to the stories of human rights defenders working across Myanmar unearths a number of common themes; survivors’ fears of speaking out, the exorbitant cost of financing legal proceedings, and harassment of both survivors and field workers by security personnel.

These are the huge practical obstacles that civil society faces in defending the basic human rights of women in the country. But the events of the last two weeks have provided an insight into the greatest obstacle of all; the refusal of Myanmar’s most powerful institution to face scrutiny.

Rather than seeing an opportunity to shine a light on any wrongdoings, human rights defenders in Myanmar have been given two clear options; silence or prison.

The Tatmadaw’s response to the events in northern Shan State is yet more evidence that Myanmar’s reforms are both limited and limiting. Rather than seeing an opportunity to shine a light on any wrongdoings – to show clearly that these crimes stand in contradistinction to the state’s avowed mission to serve the people of Myanmar – human rights defenders in Myanmar have been given two clear options; silence or prison.

Both civil society organisations across Myanmar and the international community must not overlook this threat.

The right to question government authorities suspected of human rights violations is fundamental for those who believe that the role of a state is to serve its citizens, not vice versa.

Shackling their rights

In Myanmar, shackling this right will ensure that abuses visited upon women and girls will be unreported, perpetrators will go unpunished, and the country’s reforms will be driven entirely by those marshalling the country’s transition to an authoritarian democracy.

The challenge for local civil society organisations to find new and diverse ways to work together is immediate.

Confronting this challenge requires both the ingenuity of human rights defenders in Myanmar, and support from abroad. The interventions of international governments, NGOs, and development agencies do not happen in a vacuum. They impact the direction of Myanmar’s social, political and economic development.

As long as they are not working to uproot the fear which is the keystone of the Tatmadaw’s power, they cannot claim to be helping build a Myanmar in which human rights are guaranteed for all. 

The difficulties faced by those documenting and prosecuting human rights violations are not insurmountable.

As organisations and individuals standing against land confiscation, arbitrary detention, religious persecution, impunity for crimes of sexual violence and more, they aggregate around a fundamental belief that basic human rights are inalienable.

This fertile common ground provides the basis for networks which are mutually supportive, and drive improvements in the areas which are most fundamental to human dignity.

Paulo Freire once wrote: “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for change.”

Now more than ever, this is the case for human rights defenders in Myanmar.

David Baulk is a gender and development consultant, working with civil society organisations focusing on the human rights of women in Myanmar. He is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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