As democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) now leads the government of Myanmar (Burma), visits the White House today, human rights groups are calling on her government to release a human rights activist imprisoned after his organization spoke out against abuses. Khaing Myo Htun, a deputy spokesperson for the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), was arrested by police when the ALP called attention to human rights abuses. He is now facing charges for making statements to incite offenses against public tranquility.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest by the Myanmar military for her own pro-democracy activities, yet similar activists continue to be imprisoned in Myanmar today.
“It is disgraceful that human rights activists continue to be persecuted for exercising their democratic rights in a country led by a former prisoner of conscience,” said Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder and Executive Director of EarthRights International (ERI), which has investigated human rights abuses in Myanmar for over 20 years.
Khaing Myo Htun’s arrest also jeopardizes Myanmar’s ongoing peace process, which is vital to the country’s future stability. The ALP joined last year’s ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar army, and both the alleged abuses and Khain Myo Htun’s prosecution are flagrant breaches of the agreement at a critical time for peace talks. In April, the ALP issued a statement that accused the Myanmar army of using forced labor and crimes against humanity. ERI has viewed the evidence that Khaing Myo Htun submitted to local authorities, which backs these claims. Rights group Fortify Rights, which has also called for Khaing Myo Htun’s release, has documented similar abuses. (Read more about the background on this case here).
Nonetheless, Khaing Myo Htun was arrested under the notorious Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s penal code, which criminalizes making statements that might cause “fear or alarm” and thus induce anyone “to commit an offense against the State or against the public tranquility.” Section 505(b) was commonly used during Myanmar’s years of military rule to silence human rights activists. The NLD has dropped some Section 505 prosecutions, but not all. Human Rights Watch and other groups have urged repeal of the law.
“Under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, these tactics should be a thing of the past,” said Ka Hsaw Wa. “No matter who is in power, we condemn human rights abuses and persecution of those who speak out against them. The charges against Khaing Myo Htun should be dropped immediately. The government needs to investigate abuses by the army – not human rights activists.”
Khaing Myo Htun graduated from ERI’s training program for human rights activists in 2006, and is featured in a 2014 “Faces of Change” video produced by ERI. Oo Kyaw Thein, a lawyer with ERI, is defending the activist in court in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Khaing Myo Htun was denied bail on August 26, and his next court hearing is on September 26.
EarthRights International (ERI) is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that combines the power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment, which we define as “earth rights.” We specialize in fact-finding, legal actions against perpetrators of earth rights abuses, training grassroots and community leaders, and advocacy campaigns, and have offices in Southeast Asia, the United States and Peru. More information on ERI is available at https://www.earthrights.org.