Twenty-six civil society groups in Myanmar demanded on Wednesday that authorities free detained student protesters, accusing the judicial system of unfairness after additional charges were leveled at the students who are in jail for participating in a protest against a controversial national education law.
“Some students have to go to courts for their trials five days a week, and it's like torture for them,” said Theinni Oo, organizer of the civil society organizations (CSOs), during a press conference at the Myanmar Journalist Network in the commercial capital Yangon. “We urge authorities not to keep putting them through this and give them justice. We would like to ask them to release the students.”
Roughly 60 students and their supporters remain behind bars in Tharrawaddy prison, Bago region, charged with various offenses for taking part in the protest last March in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan. The demonstration had turned violent with beatings by police and resulted in the arrests of nearly 130 students and their supporters.
About 30 others are currently standing trial and face sentences of up to nine and a half years on various charges under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. The charges include participating in an unlawful assembly, rioting, causing harm to a public servant and inciting the public to commit offenses against the state.
They also face charges under Section 505(b) of the penal code for making, publishing or circulating information that may cause public fear or alarm and incite people to commit offenses against the state or disrupt public tranquility.
The treatment of the detainees has drawn sharp criticism from CSOs and the human rights community as a cloud over the country’s democratization process.
Refusing to cooperate
Student leaders Min Thway Thit, Phyo Phyo Aung, Nanda Sit Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko are standing trial on charges under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law at courts in Yangon.
Those detained have decided not to cooperate with court authorities during their trials because of what they perceive to be an unfair judicial system, Theinni Oo said.
Tun Oo, father of one of the detained students, is holding out hope that justice for the students will come once power is transferred from the current government under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to the new administration under the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) at the end of the month.
“The previous and current governments are military ones,” he said, referring to military junta that ruled the country for a half-century before the USDP came to power in 2011. “The current government has to transfer the nation’s power soon. We want the current government to do something good before it is gone, but it hasn’t done anything good for the students yet. That’s why the students don’t trust the judicial system.”
During the Letpadan protest, which was part of a longer march across the country, students had demanded a more “democratic" education law that included a decentralized education system, changes to university entrance exam requirements, modernization of the national education curriculum, the right to form student unions, and instruction for ethnic minority groups in their own languages.
Mee Mee sent to Insein
In a related development, Mee Mee, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students group who is currently in jail for helping the student protesters, was transferred on Wednesday to Insein prison near Yangon because she refused to post bail on charges against her under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, she told RFA.
Human rights groups have noted that the detention facility is notorious for its inhumane and filthy conditions, abuse of prisoners and use of torture.
“The punishment under Article 18 harms the dignity of a democratic country and also goes against the desire of the people,” Mee Mee said. “I will not collaborate with this court order because Article 18 suppresses the people.”
Her husband Hla Moe said he did not know why authorities in the outgoing government decided to transfer his wife to Insein prison, even though they will be in power for only a few more weeks.
“The current government is doing such a thing even though it will be gone in a matter of days,” he said. “We don’t know what new government and the current government have made agreements about. We have to wait and see.”
“But those of us who are working for a better political situation will not let them arrest us on unfair charges,” he said.” We don’t expect [the authorities] to free us because we are going to have a new government, but it would be good if the new government did this.”
In the meantime, representatives from the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), a coalition of ethnic political parties which has more than 80 deputies in the NLD-dominated parliament, and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) met on Wednesday to discuss educational reform policy.
Eleven members from both organizations led by the UNA’s Sai Nyunt Lwin, who is general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), and NNER chairman Thein Lwin talked about implementing an education system that would fit into the federal system that Myanmar’s ethnic groups are calling for.
“UNA members explained what they have prepared for the federal education system, and NNER members explained about the policy on teaching ethnic languages that we developed based on research from around the country,” said NNER member Soe Tun.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Khin Khin Ei, Aung Theinkha, Khet Mar and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.