Burma: Released human rights activist still has his bag packed
The Burmese government has been recognized in recent years for having freed many political prisoners. This is regarded as one reason behind EU’s lift of all sanctions against Burma except the arms embargo in April this year. U Myint Aye is one of the former political prisoners who was released in connection with US President Obama’s visit to the country in November last year.
U Myint Aye leads the Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP), one of the Palme Center’s partners in Burma. For many years the organization has promoted human rights in a country where even the concept of human rights has been banned.
– We are in a kind of a reform process. But poverty and violations of human rights are widespread, says U Myint Aye.
He states that fifty years of isolation from the outside world and a notorious military junta in power for decades have left many Burmese unaware of their rights. Therefore, an important part of HRDP’s efforts is to spread information about human rights.
– In 2000, we printed the UN Declaration of Human Rights and handed it out in town. In those days it was completely taboo to talk about human rights. But it is not enough just to inform, people are not enthused by that. We also need to work practically, said U Myint Aye.
HRDP works with issues such as forced labor, trafficking and so-called land grabbing or land confiscation. The latter is a major problem in Burma which is a country rich in natural resources yet to be exploited. The regime needs land to offer the foreign companies and there are regularly reports on whole villages being forced to flee after their land has been confiscated. With or without compensation.
For a farmer who has been robbed of their land, it may be virtually impossible to run a legal process solo. Therefore, HRDP assists those farmers.
– We may, for example help the farmers fill out the forms and make sure that they are sent to the courts, or to pursue the cases in court, says U Aye Myint.
The Burmese legal system is confusing and whimsical, something that U Myint Aye has personal experience of. Eight times he has been in prison for a total of thirteen years. The last sentence was for life – plus eight years. It was from that sentence he was pardoned during Obama’s visit to Burma, but he takes nothing for granted. U Myint Ayes wife still has a bag packed with a change of clothes and a toothbrush ready for the next time U Myint Aye might be imprisoned.
– The regime has used the release of political prisoners as a form of payment towards the West, to gain access to assistance and avoid sanctions, says U Myint Aye.
But many of the political prisoners who have been released could be imprisoned again for the slightest infraction, he says. They are just paroled. U Myint Aye himself could be imprisoned again if he committed the slightest offense, such as crossing the street in the wrong place. Then, he would have to resume his life long sentence. The regime’s many pardons could as such be withdrawn if the situation in Burma became another.
– The change that has occurred in the recent years has been top-down and planned. But there are those in the military and government who want to reverse the trend. The problem is that there are no tools to prevent them from doing it, he says.
In the Arakan state in western Burma, the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, are victims of persecution and violence, something that Human Rights Watch among others has reported on. In March a massacre of Muslims in the town of Meiktila in Central Burma took place. U Myint Aye do not think it is a coincidence that the violence escalate right now.
– Probably the “hawks” within the military are fueling these conflicts. If there is turbulence it is easier to justify a strong military, said U Myint Aye.
But the military in Burma remains strong in comparison to most other countries. The civilian government that took office in 2010 and formally replaced the military regime, consists of old generals in civil suits. And the military has access to 25 percent of the seats in Parliament under the 2008 Constitution, where it requires a majority of 75 per cent to rewrite the constitution. Moreover the ruling party, USDP, holds 60 percent of the seats in the parliament since the rigged election in 2010.
– The power to make sweeping changes is in the hands of the military, just as it always has been. One of the greatest threats to human rights in Burma is the 2008 constitution. At the present there is nothing that guarantees that the reforms of the recent years will be permanent, says U Myint Aye.
Text: John Runeson
Photo: Frida Perjus and John Runeson
The large picture shows U Myint Aye, together with colleagues at the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters.