Arbitrary Arrests in Burma: a tool to repress critical voices

27 Sep 2012

Current situation

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) is highly concerned that the government of Burma continues to use arbitrary arrest as a tool to hold members of the democracy and human rights movement behind bars often without formal charges.

The highly celebrated political prisoner amnesties that occurred in 2012 have coincided with an alarming increase in the number of arbitrary arrests. The ongoing arrests suggest that Burma has made no significant progress towards protecting and promoting the fundamental civil and political liberties of the people.

 Since January 2012, there has been a substantial increase in the number of activists and dissidents detained without any formal charges in Burma. We have documented at least 200 politically motivated arrests without formal charges in this eight month time period. Of these arrests, less than 60 have resulted in formal court proceedings. Many leave detention unsure whether they will face trial or not. It is clear that politically motivated arrests remains a favored tactic for suppressing critical voices of democracy and human rights.

 There has been no trend towards emptying Burma’s prisons of political prisoners. The high rate of detentions documented since January 2012 indicate that the prisons in Burma are being restocked after a prisoner release. At least 200 individuals have been detained and arrested since January 2012. This is roughly half the number of political prisoners released in the same period and a major cause of concern.

 The series of political prisoner amnesties since January 2012, resulting in the release of approximately 448 political prisoners, is not a reflection of a more welcoming environment for basic civil and political freedoms. Those who speak out continue to be intimidated and treated in a degrading manner consistent with extreme tactics used when Burma was under direct military rule. Common means of intimidation, which include sexual violence and beatings, are never investigated by the police or judiciary.

 The arrest rates correlates to the highs and lulls in Burma popular resistance. For example, arrest rates are highest in the months of May, July, and September, which coincide with the protests against power cuts, commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the military crackdown on student demonstrations, and the copper mine and clothing factory protests respectively. In July, the number of new detentions climbed to 58, and in September, the number of detentions was 23, not including 13 peace network activists now facing sentences of 1 years in 10 different townships, amounting to a potential 10 year imprisonment on charges of breaching the protest bill.


The release of this paper comes at a time when President U Thein Sein will be addressing the 67th session of the UN General Assembly. With this in mind, we strongly urge UN member countries to use their authority to press the government of Burma to make a concerted effort in ensuring the people of Burma are able to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of arrest or repression, particularly the freedom of assembly and movement.

We urge the government of Burma to immediately:

 Release all those arbitrarily detained for their political activities unconditionally and without delay.

 Review and address systematic factors within domestic law and the state apparatus that allow for arbitrary detentions. In particular:

  o Abolish Section 401 (iii) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which paves the way for the re-arrest of an individual released from prison at any given time   without warrant.

  o Take necessary measures to bring the provisions outlined in the draconian Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession up to international standards, such as eliminating the requirement to seek approval for the content of slogans.

Arbitrary Arrest in Burma: a tool to repress critical voices

Since January 2012 the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has documented at least 200 incidents of politically motivated arrests. The three most significant reasons for arrest and detention have been protesting, openly criticizing government authorities and suspicion of affiliation with ethnic resistance groups – most often the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The government of Burma continues to be selective about what type of freedom of expression is allowed and what type is prohibited.

Detention without legal basis should never be used as a method of repression. The cases of detentions documented by AAPP, which include prominent human rights defenders, is emblematic of an alarming pattern of arbitrary arrest in Burma since January 2012. Arbitrary detention not only violates the rights concerning unlawful detention set forth by human rights standards such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but also blocks avenues for promoting and protecting fundamental freedoms by silencing and punishing those who fight for them.

I. Protests still not allowed

The most frequent reason for arbitrary arrest is protesting. Throughout the year the authorities have conducted sweeping arrests of people demonstrating peacefully. Suspected leaders of a demonstration are often threatened and intimidated in an attempt to dissuade them from pursuing their dissident activities. In some cases, protestors are not released from detention until they sign a form stating they will never get involved in politics again. For example, seven artists were not released from detention until they signed a form agreeing they would never repeat the offence again. Their offence: a public performance of their play, “Feeling,” which had no political undertones according to the artists.

For decades the government of Burma has subjected detainees to degrading treatment in an effort to tarnish their reputation. This pattern of abuse continues to this day. In March former political prisoner U Aung Myint initiated a solo protest by wearing a prison uniform and iron shackles on his leg in a symbolic gesture to depict the lack of freedom in Burma. He was detained and ordered to a mental health hospital for a week. His daughter was likewise detained and verbally threatened with the retraction of her law degree.

Of concern is the new protest bill, which offers no protection to protestors and only increases vulnerability to arrest. Protestors risk one year imprisonment for demonstrating without a permit, which is difficult to obtain, or 6 months imprisonment for violating the strict regulations of the protest bill, which include giving speeches that contain false information or chanting slogans that were not pre-approved. These restrictions make the protest bill incompatible with widely accepted human rights standards, particularly freedom of expression and assembly.

Burma activists have been using the protest bill as a way to test whether the reforms are genuine. However, the protests, largely peaceful, have resulted in mass arbitrary detentions, harassment, and imprisonment.

In May, five protesters from Generation Wave, Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, and NLD were detained and beaten in Pyi (Prome), Pegu Division. Officials told the protestors, who were protesting against nationwide power cuts, that the detainees would be prosecuted for staging a demonstration without receiving the required permission from authorities.

Women are not immune to physical abuse for their peaceful behavior. In September, three women who were assisting farmers protest against the expansion of a copper mine that would lead to land confiscations were arrested and abused in detention. “They pulled our hair, twisted our arms and waist and pushed us on the ground,” one of the women stated.

II. Suspicion of ties to ethnic resistance groups

The second most common reason for arbitrary detentions is suspicion of ties to ethnic resistance groups, especially in Kachin State. Local authorities take a blanket approach to apprehending ethnic minorities fleeing conflict areas or internally displaced persons and accuse them of being affiliated with unlawful organizations even though there is no evidence to substantiate these claims.

From our documentation, ethnic minorities are subject to the most brutal forms of torture during detention. Two have died in detention due to these extreme measures since January 2012. In July the body of a Kachin villager, Galau Bawm Yaw, was found in a trench bearing unmistakable signs of physical trauma. His body was discovered less than a month after he was detained on unfound accusations of being involved with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
In another case, aggressive conditions of detention, including 3 days of relentless interrogation forced a young Shan woman, Nang Wo Phan, to fall down 5 flights of stairs to her death at the Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI), where she was being held.

No rights for detainees

Any form of unacknowledged arrest or detention is outlawed under international law.

In Burma, however, political detainees are often held without charge, without access to outside communication including family members, without access to legal counsel, and without notice of the length of detention. In this sense, political detentions in Burma fall well below international standards, having the same characteristics of a kidnapping. In Burma, the clear pattern of “kidnappings” suggests they are carried out as a matter of central political decisions and not by rogue police officers or security forces.

Dire Detention: conditions of detention remain appalling

Torture with impunity is still a hallmark of detention centers throughout Burma, with the most severe forms of punishment targeting ethnic minority areas. Extreme measures that characterized the previous military regime, such as sexual violence and extensive burning of a victim, have shown no signs of abating. Since January 2012, there have been at least 2 recorded deaths in detention. This number is undoubtedly higher. However, the covert nature of the detentions and inaccessibility to areas of conflict make it difficult to understand the scale of the problem.

Cruel and inhumane punishment often brings detainees to near death. They are then released with no means of recourse or remedy and without the benefit of an effective complaints mechanism. In June, Htet Paing Soe, a Mon villager, became paralyzed after 2 consecutive days of torture. The charges brought against him were dropped upon his release. He is now unable to use his hands or legs. Similarly, in July, two detainees were hooded, burned with hot knives, candles, and cigarettes. The victims were apprehended with at least 25 others on unfounded suspicions of ties with the KIA.

International standards require authorities to notify relatives of a detainee’s death in custody. Unfortunately, family members are often left wondering to the whereabouts of their loved ones, a direct violation of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Burma’s persistent failure to notify, or disclose any official records of detentions whatsoever, increases the vulnerability of detainees, placing them far from the protection of international law and monitoring. International law holds states’ governments accountable for all individuals in custody. Therefore, the government of Burma has a responsibility to provide clear answers to the families of those who died in detention.

Former political prisoners persecuted

Former political prisoners are treated as second class citizens in Burma: they are released with heavy restrictions that undermine their fundamental freedoms and make them vulnerable to rearrest. They are not free to resume their political and human rights activities and they are not free to meet openly with colleagues, friends, and family. Their outstanding criminal records prohibit them from enrolling in university or pursing their profession: former political prisoners often have their professional licenses revoked upon their release. Since January 2012, there has been an overall increase in the number of former political prisoners held in detention without any clear charges.

Human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Pho Phyu was arrested on 27 October 2011 for leading a protest that included over 60 landless farmers. He claims to have been drugged during his 12 hour interrogation as he was given a strange smelling liquid that made him dizzy. He was released from detention pending a court trial that never materialized.

Other examples of former political prisoners being detained include Nay Myo Zin, charity worker and former political prisoner, detained twice since his release in January 2012. He was first detained for having items that bore the image of democracy icon Aung San, and second, for his leading involvement in a peace protest calling for the end of civil war in Burma in September. U Soe Kywe, NLD member and former political prisoner, was briefly detained for demonstrating against corruption. He was released with restrictions on his movement and is unsure whether he is facing criminal charges or not. These are just a handful of examples of the targeted harassment former political prisoners face, showing that harassment is part of a wider and well-orchestrated strategy to keep former political prisoners behind invisible bars.

Moreover, political prisoners are conditionally released under Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code1. Political prisoners released under Section 401 can be re-arrested at any time without warrant and made to serve the remainder of their sentence. If the amnesties announced since the January 2012 are to be taken seriously instead of as a new means of confinement, the imposing of restrictions on former political prisoners must stop.

Burma: work with, not against, activists

There is no justification for the government of Burma to harass and arbitrarily detain human rights defenders, activists, and ethnic minorities. On the contrary, they play a critical role in the protection and promotion of human rights in Burma, as well as ensuring the national reconciliation process is genuine and irreversible. The government of Burma must work with them, not against them.

There is a deep concern that political detainees are at serious risk of torture or cruel treatment given the current context of ongoing violence in Burma and the secret nature of their detentions. Their physical and mental well-being is of the utmost concern. Given that political detainees are apprehended simply for exercising their fundamental freedoms, they must all be released immediately and unconditionally.

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)

For more information:
Tate Naing (Secretary): +66 (0) 81 287 8751
Bo Kyi (Joint-Secretary): +66 (0) 81 962 8713

Burma Action Ireland

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