Human Rights Flashpoints – August 11, 2009

AFGHANISTAN – Increased violence prior to elections

As the second presidential election draws closer, increased violence from Taliban militants appears imminent.  This past Monday, Taliban militants attacked official buildings in Pul-i-Alam, launching rockets towards the police headquarters and the governor’s building, threatening to weaken governmental authority. The Taliban have declared that they will continue with the attacks in order to disrupt the August 20th elections while the United Nations fears that intensified violence jeopardizes the voter turnout.  This attack is one of the closest to have occurred to Kabul, the Afghan capital in the days prior to the election.

As the threat to civilian life increases, the White House is in the process of re-evaluating its “metrics” of success to determine if the revamped strategy of the United States in Afghanistan is working.  The new measures include tracking the size, strength and durability of the Afghan National Army, analyzing the number of operations led by the Afghan soldiers.  The plan is also to include further protection of civilians while isolating the insurgents from support and sanctuary.

Must Reads


“My message to my Democratic colleagues is that we made mistakes in Iraq. Let’s not ‘Rumsfeld’ Afghanistan,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina.

“It’s a very aggressive enemy right now.  We’ve got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative.  It’s hard work.”  General McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

MYANMAR – The shameful verdict

Myanmar’s military junta handed down its shameful verdict against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today, locking her up for at least another year and a half. Conveniently for the oppressive Generals, this will put her under house arrest until next year’s planned elections are over. The time between now and next year’s polls bears the great risk of further arrests and oppression of Myanmar’s political opposition. After all, there are already now more than 2,100 political prisoners locked up in the country’s prisons, where they are held in poor conditions and at risk of torture. To quell any potential protests in the aftermath of today’s verdict, the regime has strongly tightened security in the country.

Today’s verdict led to worldwide condemnations, and the UN Security Council will be holding a special session on the topic. Political leaders around the world have already spoken out against this injustice.

OVERHEARD – The world reacts to the verdict

(…) I join the international community in calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate unconditional release. Today’s unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights, and aspirations of all Burmese citizens.  They, too, should be freed.  Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.  I call on the Burmese regime to heed the views of its own people and the international community and to work towards genuine national reconciliation. (…) – US President Barack Obama

Unless she and all other political prisoners in Myanmar (Burma) are released and allowed to participate in free and fair elections, the credibility of the political process will remain in doubt – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

The reduced sentence was “not a concession — it is a manipulation of an illegal process. It must not be accepted by any government.” – Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town

With respect to Aung San Suu Kyi, she should not have been tried and she should not have been convicted. We continue to call for her release from continuing house arrest. (…) The Burmese junta should immediately end its repression of so many in this country, start a dialogue with the oppositon and the ethnic groups. Otherwise the elections they have scheduled for next year will have absolutely no legitimacy – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

The Australian government is convinced that Aung San Suu Kyi was tried on spurious charges and not granted a fair hearing – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

The Burmese authorities have shown with this iniquitous ruling their decision to ignore pressing messages from the international community – French President Nicolas Sarkozy

I am both saddened and angry at the verdict today, August 11, following the sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year. So long as Aung San Suu Kyi and all those political opponents imprisoned in Burma remain in detention and are prevented from playing their full part in the political process, the planned elections in 2010 will have no credibility or legitimacy – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

The Indonesian government is very disappointed over the verdict given by the Burmese court against Aung San Suu Kyi – Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah

Coming This Week

  • August 10: President Obama arrives in Mexico to discuss immigration and the drug cartels
  • August 11: Secretary Clinton to arrive in Eastern Congo
  • Expected later on this week: A report from Congress describing the 50 suspected Afghan drug lords with ties to the Taliban, a status that allows them to be captured and killed at any time.

Jacki Mowery contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

Verdict Against Aung San Suu Kyi

A court in military-ruled Myanmar sentenced opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to three years in prison, a sentence which was immediately reduced to a year and half under house arrest.  The verdict was handed down in the country’s infamous Insein prison, where she was held since her arrest last May. If this shameful verdict will lead to wider unrest remains to be seen. There were apparently at least 2,000 security personnel deployed around Insein prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a prisoner of conscience, locked up solely for her political beliefs. She should be released immediately and unconditionally. As we have recently seen through the release of Ma Khin Khin Leh (who was serving a life sentence!), only sustained campaigning for individuals at risk will have an impact.

20 years of oppression
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial for allegedly violating the terms and conditions of her house arrest. The leader of the Myanmar opposition party, the National League for Democracy, was arrested shortly before her house detention order was to expire on 27 May 2009

She has been detained for over 13 of the past 20 years, mostly under house arrest. Her first period in detention began in July 1989 as the Myanmar government intensified its crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests that began a year earlier.

Amnesty International announced on 27 July that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been awarded its most prestigious honor – the “Ambassador of Conscience” Award for 2009.

Over 2,100 political prisoners
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the most prominent of over 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar. Many are held in poor conditions, and are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Conditions in Myanmar’s prisons are harming the health of many political prisoners. Access to medical treatment is severely limited. Many prisoners are denied adequate food and are therefore malnourished.

Judicial proceedings show no regard for due process, and many trials have been held in special closed courts. Since October 2008, when the government began sentencing en masse those who had peacefully taken part in major anti-government protests in August and September 2007, more than 350 political activists have been jailed.

Some of these political activists have been given lengthy jail terms – one being sentenced to 104 years in November 2008, while 23 others were sentenced to 65 years.

We have recently highlighted ten individual cases in order to demonstrate the ongoing political repression in Myanmar in the last two decades.

A long list of crimes
Today’s guilty verdict can only be added to the already long list of the junta’s crimes. In addition to locking up political dissidents and violently oppressing peaceful protests, the atrocities committed against ethnic minorities amount to crimes against humanity, as Amnesty International has documented. Additionally, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has used high resolution satellite images to document human rights abuses in eastern Burma.

Human Rights Flashpoints – August 4, 2009

MYANMAR – Tensions rise in anticipition of verdict

The situation in Myanmar (Burma) is getting more tense this week in anticipation of a verdict against Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, August 11.  She is currently held in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison, awaiting her verdict in a trial that has gathered worldwide attention.  Given the fact that the “Four Eights” anniversary is to take place only 3 days prior to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi’s verdict, these two highly politically charged events can prove to be a galvanizing force for major protests.  Looking at the regime’s track record of violent suppression of any dissent, recent developments justify major concern of what will happen in the country in the next few days.  Last week, authorities detained 30 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in an apparent attempt to block them from organizing protests on July 31, the day the verdict was originally expected.  All those arrested are at risk of torture.  While some of the opposition members were released, further arrests can be expected in the run up to the announcement of the verdict.  If there are outbreaks of demonstrations in spite of government attempts to forestall them, there is the added concern that we will see violent tactics by the police and armed forces to suppress them like the ones we saw in the uprisings of August and September of 2007.  Reports are indicating that the regime has heightened its alert and has deployed security forces in strategic areas of the country, something that is very characteristic of the government preparations to prevent suspected dissent.

Call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Must Reads 


“(…) we have consistently had a very consistent public message that we believe that she should be immediately and unconditionally released, along with the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.  I know Secretary Clinton has been very engaged with her colleagues, with some of her foreign minister colleagues.  It was a topic at the ASEAN meeting, and she took every opportunity to urge her colleagues to make a similar message on the need for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released conditionally.” – Ian Kelly, Department of State, July 30, 2009.

“Suu Kyi’s continued detention, isolation, and show trial based on spurious charges cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime’s willingness to be a responsible member of the international community.”  President Obama, May 26, 2009.

SRI LANKA – Local elections without independent monitors

There are growing concerns over the upcoming August 8 local elections due to the prohibition of media and independent monitors of the first elections since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.  This Saturday’s elections in the cities of Vavuniya and Jaffna are being hyped up by the government as the first democratic elections in this war-torn region.

The two cities fall just on the other side of the former de facto state of the Tamil Tigers in the north.  Tamils remain the majority in the area.  The cities in which the elections are held are surrounded by checkpoints, only accessible with permission from the Defense Ministry.  Lakshman Hulugalle, the head of the government’s security information center, stated that reporters will not be allowed into the cities to report on the elections, relying solely on handouts from the government. The Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa originally stated to let civilians who lived in the Tamil Tigers’ self-declared state to vote in an election. However, close to 300,000 civilians are currently held in military run de-facto internment camps.

Must Reads

Coming This Week

  • August 3: Secretary Clinton arrived in Africa for an 11 day tour
  • August 4: Former president Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea to discuss the release of two American journalists
  • August 8: Sri Lankan local elections
  • August 11: Verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi expected

Jacki Mowery, Anil Raj and Jim Roberts contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Awarded 2009 "Ambassador of Conscience" Award

Yesterday, twenty years after being declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International (with more than 13 of those 20 years spent under house arrest) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Myanmar opposition party the National League for Democracy, was awarded Amnesty International’s most prestigious honor, the “Ambassador of Conscience” Award, recognizing her exceptional leadership in the fight to protect and promote human rights. Amnesty International and the Irish rock band U2 announced the award in Dublin, Ireland.

Though her house detention order was set to expire on May 27, 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi was instead arrested on grounds that she had violated the terms and conditions of her house arrest, and she was placed on trial on May 18. If convicted, she could face up to five years in prison.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one of over 2,100 others currently imprisoned in Myanmar for their political beliefs, and all of these individuals should be freed. As Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan so eloquently put, “In those long and often dark years Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has remained a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defense of human rights, not only to the people of Myanmar but to people around the world.” Indeed, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a beacon of hope for some, a leader for many and an inspiration to us all. Learn more about Aung San Suu Kyi and take action!

UN Human Rights Council flunks test on Sri Lanka

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.  The UN Human Rights Council concluded its special session on Sri Lanka yesterday by adopting a resolution proposed by the Sri Lankan government.  The Council’s session should have been used to examine the reports of human rights violations and war crimes occurring during  the recent fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  On May 17, the Sri Lankan government had announced that it had defeated the Tigers, recapturing all the territory controlled by them and killing their leaders.  The Tigers had been fighting over the past 26 years to establish an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the country.  Both sides have committed gross human rights violations and war crimes over the course of the conflict.

Amnesty International had called for the Council to set up a fact-finding mission to look into allegations of abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by both sides.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Council’s special session that an independent, international investigation should be undertaken into these abuses.  Both also called for the Sri Lankan government to give journalists and aid agencies unimpeded access to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians who’ve been placed by the government in overcrowded internment camps which they can’t leave.

Of course, the Council’s resolution, since it was drafted by the Sri Lankan government, does none of these things.  While condemning the Tigers, it makes no mention of abuses committed by the government forces.  It simply acknowledges that the Sri Lankan government would provide aid agencies with access “as may be appropriate” to the displaced civilians.  

What’s next for the Human Rights Council – asking the Sudanese government to draft a resolution on Darfur?  asking the government of Myanmar to draft a resolution on Aung San Suu Kyi?  The Council could still redeem itself; its next regular session starts next Monday, June 2.  The Council should take up action again on Sri Lanka and this time live up to its responsibilities by establishing an international investigation into the abuses committed by both sides and ensuring unimpeded access for aid agencies and the media to the displaced civilians.

Yesterday was a very sad day for the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka.  Let’s hope it’s not repeated.

The Name Says It All: Burma's Insein Prison

Myanmar's Insein Prison, where Auung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of others are held (c) Digital Globe 2008. Image taken from Google Earth

Myanmar's Insein Prison, where Auung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of others are held (c) Digital Globe 2008. Image taken from Google Earth

Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been brought to the country’s infamous Insein (pronounced “insane”) prison, to face trial on May 18. The prison has been described as the “darkest hell-hole in Burma” and houses many of the country’s more than 2,100 political prisoners. Just recently, after years of campaigning by Amnesty International, Mah Khin Khin Leh has been released from there.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s transfer to Insein prison has sparked international outcry, led by Amnesty International activists. The UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, made the following statement yesterday : “I call on the government of Myanmar [Burma] to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her aides unconditionally”.

The BBC has a good report summarizing the events of the last few days.

Aung San Suu Kyi Charged Today in Myanmar

Myanmar’s (Burma) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was charged today with violating the terms of her house arrest after an American man allegedly snuck into her home last week.  She now faces a prison term of up to five years – just weeks before her house arrest was set to expire on May 27th.

With general elections coming up next year many have questioned the timing of the arrest as pretext to prevent Suu Kyi’s involvement.  Is it merely a convenient coincidence?  You decide.

Suu Kyi’s female companion, Khin Khin Win, and Khin Khin Win’s daughter were also arrested at the same time.  Amnesty International is demanding that the U.N. Security Council, notably China and Japan, and ASEAN countries, urgently intervene to secure their release.  They are best placed to bring the necessary pressure to bear on the Myanmar government.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Khin Win and her daughter are now among the more than 2,100 political prisoners currently being held in prison in Myanmar. Conditions in Myanmar prisons are extremely bad and jeopardize the health of prisoners.  Take action now to demand Suu Kyi’s and other political prisoners’ immediate release from prison!

Ma Khin Khin Leh is Free!

Ma Khin Khin Leh, © Private

Ma Khin Khin Leh, © Private

After serving nearly 10 years of a life sentence in Myanmar (Burma), prisoner of conscience and long-time AIUSA priority case Ma Khin Khin Leh was freed this past weekend along with 18 others widely considered to be political prisoners.

Ma Khin Khin Leh, a school teacher and young mother, had been serving a life sentence because her husband, a student activist, helped plan a demonstration to be held in Bago on July 19, 1999, to protest government policies and to show support for the National League for Democracy (NLD), a pro-democracy political party that sought to counter the military junta that had reigned over Myanmar since 1962. Days before the demonstration was to take place, authorities moved to prevent it. Failing to find her husband, security agents arrested Ma Khin Khin Leh and the couple’s three-year-old daughter. Although her daughter was released after spending five days in detention, Ma Khin Khin Leh, then age 33, was eventually transferred to Insein Prison. In December 1999, the Insein Special Court sentenced her to life imprisonment under vaguely-worded security legislation. Even by the normally harsh standards of “justice” meted out by Myanmar’s military government, the life sentence given to Ma Khin Khin Leh was extreme.

Other AI sections and AIUSA have  worked for Ma Khin Khin Leh’s release for many years; first as the subject of an Action File for local group campaigning efforts, as the AIUSA Midwest Region’s Special Focus Case from 2005 until recently and finally as one of AIUSA’s Priority Cases in tandem with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

We do not know and perhaps never will know why Ma Khin Khin Leh was chosen to be one of those released, but we are overjoyed that she is finally free, and hope that she will quickly recover from the illness and trauma of her time in prison.