Thursday, October 8, 2015

Myanmar escalates pressure on activists ahead of elections

A guard closes a gate leading to Myanmar's Insein prison following a prisoner release in Yangon in October 2014. Observers say the country has intensified pressure on activists in the lead-up to the highly anticipated Nov. 8 elections. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Rights groups and faith leaders in Myanmar are calling on the government to immediately release almost 100 political prisoners, including Christians, amid a renewed crackdown on peaceful activists ahead of November elections.

Advocates for prisoners of conscience in Myanmar say there are at least 96 political prisoners behind bars and hundreds more awaiting trial. At least five of the 96 people are Christians — three Kachin and two Karen people, who were arrested for alleged links to ethnic rebel groups.

Father Thomas Htang Shan Mong, director of the bishops' conference's Justice and Peace Commission, said the church should be more outspoken on the political prisoner issue, because locking up activists contravenes basic social justice principles.

"Scores of political prisoners remain behind bars," Father Htang Shan Mong said in an interview on Oct. 8. "[This] shows that the country has yet to move forward to democracy and sounds the alarm to civil society groups that they need to push for amending the draconian laws that attempt to silence activists."

Lama Yaw, a spokesman for the Kachin Baptist Convention, said many people in his predominantly Christian state have been displaced because of conflict between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army. Often, the displaced Kachin are arbitrarily arrested and accused of links to the rebel group.

"The arbitrary arrests … of activists and civilians across the country is returning to the old ways of dictatorship and it is totally against democratic values and principles," Lama Yaw told

In December 2013, authorities in Myanmar declared there were no political prisoners in the country — a claim that rights groups greeted with deep skepticism.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group, believes there are 96 political prisoners, including the five Christians, and more than 450 others awaiting trial.

Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the group, said the upcoming Nov. 8 elections have only intensified the government's actions, with authorities continuing to lock up activists in the months leading up to the poll.

"It is a great opportunity for the government to release all remaining political prisoners ahead of the election so that these people can participate in the historic polls," Aung Myo Kyaw said. "If the government really wants to move forward to democracy, no political prisoner should be behind bars."

Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, also believes repression has "drastically picked up pace" in the last two years.

In an Oct. 8 statement, the group said at least 91 prisoners of conscience are still stuck behind bars — far more than what Amnesty had counted in 2013. The group has documented "a marked surge" in repression as the election draws near, with authorities charging activists with a range of offences and keeping them in pretrial detention.

"Myanmar authorities have clearly been playing a long game ahead of the elections, with repression picking up pace at least nine months before the campaigning period started in September," Laura Haigh, the group's Myanmar researcher, said in the statement.

"Their goal has been straightforward: take undesirable voices off the streets way ahead of the elections and make sure they're not heard."