International rights groups have decried the use of violence to disperse and arrest student protestors in Rangoon and Letpadan last week.
Human Rights Watch has called the heavy-handed force by police “appalling”, while Amnesty International (AI) has called for an investigation into the crackdown. The European Union (EU), which has conducted riot police training programmes in Burma for two years, has defended its support for the Burmese police but expressed concern over the recent incidents.
In an email to DVB on Monday, Phil Robertson, the deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said, “It’s appalling that the police violated basic rights to freedom of expression and peaceful public assembly, and employed thug-like auxiliaries in a throwback to the days of the military junta. This crackdown should be condemned by the international community and promises secured from Naypyidaw to prevent it from happening again.”
Amnesty International seconded the condemnation. “Reports that the police used excessive force and that people were arbitrarily arrested for peacefully expressing their views are worrying and must be investigated. It’s also essential that media workers are able to carry out their legitimate work free of harassment and intimidation from authorities.
“Myanmar’s security forces have a long and troubling history of using excessive force against peaceful protestors,” the London-based organisation said. “With elections looming in just a few months, it’s crucial that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected.”
Robertson’s assertion that “thug-like auxiliaries” – widely assumed to be members of the Swan Arr Shin, an organisation with a reputation for pro-government partisanship and acts of brutality – were drafted in to the fracas by Rangoon police was not denied by regional Chief Minister Myint Swe. According to 88 Generation representatives, on Sunday Myint Swe told them that the use of force and the recruitment of civilian volunteers to assist police in the crackdown was justified under articles 127 and 128 of the Code of Criminal Procedures (CCP).
The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group responded by saying that such use of colonial-era jurisdiction is “inappropriate”.
Sam Zarifi, regional director for Asia and the Pacific for the International Commission of Jurists, agreed.
“One of the priorities for the government and the legislature has to be cleaning up the legal framework in Myanmar [Burma] to bring it up to date and into compliance with international law and standards, and a big part of that is getting rid of archaic and obsolete legacies from the British Raj legal system such as CCP 128, which have been largely discarded or at least reformed in other regional countries that inherited the British code.”
While police have widely been condemned by the international community for escalating the standoffs with students in Rangoon and Letpadan on Thursday and Friday respectively, many have called into question the role of the European Union (EU) which has financed and supported training programmes for Burma’s police force since 2013, specifically in areas of human rights and crowd control, including the provision of riot gear.
The EU was quick to mitigate its share of the blame. On Friday, 6 March, it issued this statement: “The Delegation of the European Union is following with concern recent clashes in relation to ongoing student protests. Freedom of expression, together with the right of legal and peaceful assembly, goes to the very core of the meaning of democracy.
“In 2013 the European Union started training parts of the Myanmar Police Force [MPF]. The purpose of the training is to increase the awareness of human rights, stress the importance of negotiation, and encourage the use of proportional force only as a last resort in crowd management. Recent events highlight the need for more training, not less. The EU only trains the MPF, not certain parallel forces. The European Union remains committed to supporting positive change in Myanmar.”
The British ambassador to Burma, Andrew Patrick, noted that the violent incident in Rangoon on Thursday had let down an otherwise disciplined show of policing at the student protests.
Asked by DVB on Monday if criticism of the EU’s riot training for Burma’s police reflected negatively on the UK’s initiative to train the Burmese military, Ambassador Patrick wrote: “We continue to support the EU training of the police. Our courses for the military are focused on issues such as the role of the military in a democracy, human rights and international law, so there is no direct read across, but in both cases institutions do not change overnight, and it would be naive to start engaging with them thinking that they will. So certainly we, and I am sure the EU, went into these programmes with our eyes open.”
Not so convinced was Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, which has campaigned for the EU and UK to pull out of its training projects.
“Countries such as the USA and the UK, which have been cheerleaders for the reform process and President Thein Sein, now need to step in and make clear that further attacks on students will have severe diplomatic consequences,” he said.
“It’s like Groundhog Day for Burma: student demonstrations banned; thugs used to attack protesters; activists arrested; and the international community doing nothing.”
On Saturday, Burmese democracy activists staged demonstrations in Washington DC in front of the White House and the Burmese Embassy to show solidarity with the student protests and condemning the use of violence by the police.
Similar protests took place the same day in Norway’s capital, Oslo, where Burmese exile activists and supporters rallied in front of the parliament building.
Meanwhile, an umbrella group of 23 civil society organisations and political parties in Burma has issued a statement urging President Thein Sein to engage in peaceful negotiations to resolve the situation.
And the United Nationalities Federal Council – a coalition of 12 ethnic militias presently engaged in ceasefire talks with the Burmese government – also issued a statement denouncing the violence against students and peaceful demonstrators. It accused the government of hiding behind the Constitution and using it as a new form of “oppression tactics”.