Hopes are high for Myanmar, which has now elected its first civilian president after decades of military rule. But the crackdown on student protesters continues, says Amnesty International's Jasmine Heiss.
Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma that was under military rule for decades, has made strides towards democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) - the party of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi - won the majority of votes in last year's election. And on Tuesday, Myanmar's parliament voted for a new civilian president - Htin Kyaw, a confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi who herself was banned from running for office.
But despite this historic vote and apparent signs of progress, there are still many issues that remain critical. One year after police violently clamped down on student protests, the authorities now continue the crackdown on critical voices. In the past two months, at least eight student union leaders and protesters have been arrested or now face new charges, according to Amnesty International.
Htin Kyaw is the country's first civilian president in decades. He's a close friend of Aung San Suu Kyi's (r)
DW: Why is there a renewed and massive crackdown on protesters, despite the apparent change in the country?
Jasmine Heiss: What we're seeing in Myanmar is really a failure despite the promise of new political leadership to chart a new direction, to break with the violent past in which dissent and peaceful protest were criminalized and brutally silenced.
Because of that, as we have the election of a new NLD president amidst promises that freeing political prisoners and respecting freedom of expression will be a priority for the party, it is particularly critical that those reforms are actually put into action.
And that's true both for the student protesters like Phyoe Phyoe Aung and others who have now been awaiting charges - many of them - for more than a year. But it's also true for the many others who are continuing to languish behind bars in Myanmar's prisons.
There are people like Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who were arrested last year, but there have also been new cases of arrests. At the end of last month, several activists including Nilar Thein were arrested and charged with protesting without having obtained permission first. She was arrested because of her role in peaceful protests in February last year. And the activists who were already detained last year have now been charged with multiple additional charges. Why is that? What's there to gain for the authorities to crack down now?
It's an interesting question and one I think that people could ask all over the world: what is the value of silencing peaceful dissent? And particularly in this case - you mentioned Nilar Thein's case as well as Phyoe Phyoe Aung - Nilar was protesting in support of the students and Phyoe Phyoe and many others were arrested while protesting the National Education Law and [for] academic freedom. So it is an interesting question, with this stated desire to move toward a more democratic and open government, what could the government of Myanmar possibly stand to gain by silencing the youngest voices, the youngest leadership, in the country?
I think it is important to remember that after such a long legacy of really brutal repression of dissent, it can be difficult for countries to chart new directions. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has talked about the importance of a country remembering how to move into human rights respecting space after operating in a different way for so long. So one of the things that will be really critical moving forward to address is a change in some of the laws and policies that continue to keep prisoners of conscience, peaceful protesters and human rights defenders behind bars.
Unfortunately, that will also be the piece that is most difficult for the new NLD leadership to deliver on. In large part because of the 2008 constitution which gives a large portion of control around these issues to the ministry of home affairs - which is of course military-controlled.
And that of course will still be the case even though Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD is due to take over at the beginning of April, right? The ministry still holds that power?
Certainly. So we are seeing an interesting situation in the country in which there is that really profound contrast between the NLD party, which itself includes many former political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and the ministry of home affairs, which oversees the Myanmar police force, the general administration of justice and the general administration department being military-controlled.
So in order to see a situation in which human rights are really allowed to flourish, in which protesters like Phyoe Phyoe Aung, like Nilar Thein and many others are no longer languishing behind bars, it will be critical for these two forces to reconcile their differences and come to an agreement about how to support and champion human rights and free expression.
Would you say these recent crackdowns are the military trying to cling to power?
It's difficult to say exactly what is happening. Certainly we hope that the military and the leadership who will remain in power see the value of a more open and rights-respecting Myanmar. However, it can be very difficult to move from a system and a state in which repression of dissent is sort of the first reaction. So it's critical when we look at these individual cases to also understand the way in which both policies and practices have to be shifted. And that includes things of course like training of police on how to deal with peaceful protest which we see as a critical issue all over the world.
How many students and activists are detained at the moment?
As of March 10, 2016, which is about a year after the violent crackdown in which scores were arrested, we know of at least 45 student protesters who remain in detention. Their trial is ongoing for many of the students and they face years of imprisonment.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung for example is facing at least nine years. There are about six additional student union members who were protesting against the same crackdown and around the freedom of education who continue to face charges as well for their role in the protests.
Myanmar is also still battling with fighting between the army and ethnic minorities - thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the northeastern Shan State after increased fighting in the region. Aung San Suu Kyi has said bringing peace to Myanmar's border areas will be a priority for her new administration. But it seems that peace is a far way out there?
It does. I think that any time you look at a country with such a troubled history, such a troubled legacy around human rights, there is no way to sort of immediately bring peace or human rights or respect for freedom of expression to any place. Certainly as we look toward the potential of prisoner releases with the new president coming to office, we are also hoping that the ethnic minorities in Myanmar are not forgotten or swept under the rug, but that all prisoners of conscience, all people who are unjustly imprisoned currently in the country are released. And that these larger issues of repression and violence are addressed by the leadership.
In western Myanmar, in Rakhine State, the situation for the Rohingya minority is still dire as well. Just in February, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs paid a visit to refugee camps and the official said he was shocked about the state of the camps. Why has there been virtually no progress after the NLD's victory in the parliamentary elections?
That's an important question and certainly a question Amnesty International would love to ask the NLD leadership themselves. This is an issue, particularly around the Rohingya, that we have repeatedly raised. It is an issue of grave concern and really a humanitarian crisis. And so while Amnesty International advocated directly for Aung San Suu Kyi's release - she herself was a prisoner of conscience - we will also be seeking to bring pressure to bear with this new leadership, her position of power and U Htin Kyaw's new assumption of the presidency and asking them to address the human rights crisis.
Jasmine Heiss is Amnesty International USA's Individuals at Risk Campaign.