On March 10, 2015 hundreds of student protestors were at a standstill near the city of Letpadan in Myanmar.
They had reached the eighth day of a standoff between largely peaceful activists marching for academic freedom, and the police forces who were blocking their path when, suddenly, things came to a head. Police began beating students violently, including those who had fallen to the ground. Some tried to flee, and hundreds were arrested.
Among those marching for freedom that day was a young leader named Phyoe Phyoe Aung, Secretary General of the All Burma Student Foundation. At only 27 years old, she had been leading protests and helping organize marches across the country since the National Education Law was adopted in September 2014; legislation that student unions believe curtails academic freedom.
As the standoff dragged on in the week before March 10, Phyoe Phyoe had already tried to negotiate a peaceful solution with police. When the day turned violent, she took shelter in a monastery with other students and again offered the authorities an alternative to force: the students would surrender if they were guaranteed safety.
Instead, the police handcuffed Phyoe Phyoe and her fellow activists, beat their heads and bodies with batons, and threatened the female protestors with sexual abuse. When watching video clips of that day, I cannot help but be struck by how alarmingly familiar it feels – young people leading a largely peaceful protest, only met by a disproportionately violent police response. One year later, another chilling parallel has emerged – to date Amnesty International is not aware of a single police officer being brought to justice for human rights abuses.
More than 100 people were charged in connection with the March 10 protest, and at least 50 still remain in detention. Phyoe Phyoe faces up to 13 years in prison, and her husband Lin Htet Naing – also known as “James” – could behind bars for more than nine years. They are not alone.
The detention of these brave human rights defenders is occurring in the context of a relentless crackdown on student activists, and a wide range of people – including journalists, human rights defenders, students, and labor and land activists – have been threatened, harassed and jailed, simply for peacefully raising their voices. This is part of a long legacy of repression in Myanmar, with authorities using politically motivated arrest and imprisonment to weaken opposition movements.
Paradoxically, this has continued even as government leaders have professed commitment to political and social reforms. Aung San Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) Party swept elections. Myanmar’s parliament is now filled with people who have suffered politically motivated imprisonment, and they have an opportunity to lead the country toward a new era of human rights when President U Htin Kyaw takes office on April 1. As Amnesty International details in our brand new report “New Expression Meets Old Repression,” it is critical that the NLD-led government commits to wholesale legal reform so that the country can end the cycle of politically motivated arrest and imprisonment once and for all.
Before Phyoe’s Phyoe’s husband James was arrested, he told us about his partner and their fight for justice:
“I am very proud of her. She’s the Secretary General of the All Burma Federation Student Union. It’s an important union in our country’s history because it led the call for independence and democracy. That’s why we helped to re-establish it in 2007.
We had to work in secret, because it was illegal to be a member of the union at that time. We took part in the Saffron Revolution, to protest against the rise in commodity prices. But then we were both arrested, and were in jail for more than three years.”
Indeed, Phyoe Phyoe is the kind of fiercely principled, resilient human rights defender that we all hope we might become if put in similar circumstances. In 2007, after the “Saffron Revolution,” Phyoe Phyoe and James were forced into hiding to avoid arrest for peaceful protest. They emerged only in order to provide humanitarian support after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of the country, and were soon thrown into jail.
Her spirit couldn’t be broken even while she was behind bars – when Phyoe Phyoe refused to wear the prison-issued uniform shirt in detention, prison officials took away her blankets and mosquito net and sent her to solitary confinement for a month. Upon her release, she was prevented from resuming her studies because of her incarceration. Despite all of this, she returned to marching, organizing, and championing the rights of her fellow students.
Today, even the photos that you see of Phyoe Phyoe speak to her courage – she is almost always smiling, even when it is from behind bars.
Aung San Suu Kyi has famously said:
“I don’t believe in people just hoping. We work for what we want. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavor, so we work to try and bring about the situation that is necessary for the country”
As Suu Kyi’s NLD party helps chart the course for Myanmar’s future, it is the work and the hope and courage of Human rights defenders like Phyoe Phyoe Aung who will help ensure that the brutal past is truly left behind. If human rights are to become a reality, they must be freed without any further delay.