A new Amnesty International report says Myanmar authorities have been locking up and harassing scores of activists as part of and growing and far-reaching crackdown ahead of November's general election. DW examines.
"The authorities are targeting leading activists, media people - in particular people who could be doing election monitoring, people who are very active and will support campaigns for certain political parties." These are the words of Aung Myo Kyaw, a member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners - Burma, speaking to Amnesty International (AI) this June on what he views as a clampdown on freedom of expression ahead of a highly anticipated general election on November 8.
Myo Kyaw is one of several activists quoted by the rights organization in a recently published briefing on "prisoners of conscience" in Myanmar. Titled "Going Back to the Old Ways," the 16-page-long report aims to expose how repression has drastically picked up pace in the country over the past two years, in contrast to official claims that not a single person is imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights.
'Threats' to the government
In fact, the group believes there are at least 91 "prisoners of conscience" currently behind bars in the Southeast Asian nation. "This represents a dramatic increase since a wide-ranging presidential pardon at the end of 2013 when Amnesty International was aware of just two prisoners of conscience," said the authors of the report.
Affected by the "clampdown" have been a wide range of people perceived as "threats" to the government, including human rights defenders, lawyers, opposition activists, students, trade unionists and journalists, said the paper.
AI considers a prisoner of conscience any person imprisoned or otherwise physically restricted solely because of his/her political, religious or other conscientiously held beliefs, or factors such as ethnic origin, sex, color, or for exercising his or her right to freedom of expression or other human rights - who has not used violence or advocated violence or hatred.
Many of Myanmar's "prisoners of conscience" have faced several previous stints in jail, and are often re-arrested and handed new prison sentences shortly after being released, said AI. The country of 53 million people has a range of laws containing provisions prohibiting, among other things, unlawful assembly, "disturbing state tranquility" and "insulting religious feelings."
AI also spoke in its report about a "climate of fear" being compounded through other forms of intimidation, including a pervasive system of monitoring and harassment. "Activists are subjected to constant surveillance including being followed, having their photo taken when attending events, midnight "inspections" of their offices and homes, and harassment of family members," said the group.
Jasmin Lorch, a research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, explains that activists who engage in campaigns that threaten the vested interests of military cronies and other economic and political elites in country are being targeted. For instance, a number of activists who protested against land-grabbing have been arrested, she told DW.
The AI briefing - which documents seven emblematic cases of prisoners of conscience - also states that Myanmar has experienced a surge in repression ahead of the general election. The groups speaks of peaceful activists being charged more often with offences without bail, and kept in pre-trial detention for extended periods, while prison sentences have become longer.
A human rights activist from Mandalay - Myanmar's second-largest city - was quoted in the report as saying: "As the election is getting near, most of the people who speak out are getting arrested. I am very concerned. Many activists are facing lots of charges. This is a situation the government has created - they can pick up anyone they want, when they want."
The November 8 poll will be the first since President Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule. The incumbent administration has earned international praise over the past years for undertaking political, economic and social reforms that have resulted in the lifting of most Western sanctions.
The reforms have also affected the country's expanding media landscape. From a handful of media outlets controlled through strict pre-publication censorship four years ago, an increasingly diverse media scene exists today with several independent newspapers and broadcast channels.
Beware of 'sensitive' issues
Yet as journalists and critics become more vocal, the authorities have increasingly sought to stifle dissent through a range of vaguely formulated laws which some regard as draconian.
"Myanmar's parliament passed legislation last year to regulate the media and publishing industries, and authorities will use provisions under this law to keep the media in check," Phuong Nguyen, Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), told DW, adding that the Ministry of Information and the Myanmar Press Council have considerable sway over the media landscape.
In particular, those deemed critical of the government, the Myanmar Army or the intelligence agencies, or who report on subjects considered sensitive - such as the Rohingya or armed conflict in ethnic areas - can face intimidation, harassment and at times arrest, detention, prosecution and even imprisonment.
"They [the authorities] have enough laws, they can charge anyone with anything. At the same time, they want to pretend that people have rights. But as soon as you make problems for them or their business they will arrest you." Min Ko Naing, a former prisoner of conscience and member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, was quoted in the AI briefing as saying.
Analyst Lorch agrees, arguing that over the past several months there have been reports that journalists covering issues considered sensitive by the government or the military have been harassed or arrested. For instance, five media workers for the Unity Weekly newspaper are serving seven years' imprisonment with hard labor in Pakokku prison in Sagaing Region, after the paper published an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory.
It is important to point out that not all analysts believe the government is engaging in a systemic crackdown ahead of the election, as access to the media for election coverage, for example, has been more open than expected.
However, there are some who view the government as practicing double standards. "On the one side, people are warned not to criticize the military and authorities have been monitoring social media platforms for this, and on the other side, the Union Election Commission said its hands are tied about the politicking of an extremist Buddhist group called the Ma Ba Tha," said CSIS analyst Nguyen.
In the meantime, the election campaign - which started on September 8 - is in full swing. The three parties contesting nationwide are President Thein Sein's Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), the National League for Democracy (NLD) of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who is barred from running for the presidency - and the National Unity Party.
As analyst Lorch explains, the ruling, military-backed USDP has pledged to continue the current process of top-down reforms that have liberalized the country's political and the economic system but, at the same time, ensured that the military retains a key role in national politics as well as in the economy. The government also faces international criticism over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine.
The NLD, on the other hand, has pledged to conduct more far-ranging democratic reforms. For instance, it wants to change the current constitution that gives the military 25 percent of the seats in the parliament. However, as Lorch indicates, none of the main parties has a really detailed and sophisticated political program at this stage.
This is one of the reasons why analysts say the outcome of the vote will be hard to predict. There is also a large number of smaller, ethnic-based political parties at state level seeking to represent their own ethnic groups. In total, 93 political parties will compete for seats in both the Union and local parliaments. So given Myanmar's first-past-the-post electoral system, "smaller political parties, such as ethnic parties, may act as kingmakers," said Lorch.
Could the election bring change?
Observers say the technical aspects of the vote have gone quite well, especially in a country that for decades did not hold elections. These include inviting domestic and international observers, issuing a code of conduct for the media and political parties, and educating voters.
The outcome of the poll is unlikely to lead to fundamental democratic changes given the military's de facto veto power
But as analyst Nguyen points out there are also political undertones in decisions such as disqualifying virtually all Muslim candidates, revoking temporary identification cards of internally displaced ethnic minorities - thus making it nearly impossible for them to vote - and the placement of a large number of military officers on the ruling party's roster.
One thing already seems to be clear: the vote will not be completely free and fair, since candidates will compete for only 75 percent of seats in the parliament. The other 25 percent is allocated to military officers and appointed by the commander-in-chief. So even if, say, Suu Kyi's NLD party swept the election, the military would retain its blocking minority in parliament, be guaranteed one of the two vice presidential slots and still have a say in key Cabinet.
This means that the electoral outcome is unlikely to lead to fundamental democratic changes given the military's de facto veto power in terms of changing the country's constitution. Yet as analyst Nguyen points out, one of the key criteria for determining if the election will be seen as legitimate is whether its results will be accepted by the Burmese people and many of Myanmar's western partners, in particular the European Union and the United States.
Against this backdrop, it remains unclear what impact the election results may have on the human rights situation in the country. But this is unlikely to undermine the determination of rights activists. "The government may stop the work of newspapers by detaining and pressing charges against journalists and jailing them, but they will never manage to change journalists' conviction to stand by the side of the people," Sithu Soe, a "prisoner of conscience," was quoted by AI as saying.
In this context, AI's Laura Haigh called on the international community to use the upcoming election to "make clear to Myanmar's authorities that locking up and silencing peaceful critics is unacceptable."
"World leaders cannot take at face value Myanmar's claims to have ended repression," she said.