Photo: Workers laid-off from the Home Shin seafood-processing plant stage a sit-in in front of Yangon City Hall, September 2013 (Ruben Salgado Escudero).
Despite reforms, fighting for your rights in Myanmar remains a dangerous proposition, as one young activist has discovered.
(as Marcus J. Butler)
When he was released from prison in January 2012 after serving nearly three years of a politically motivated sentence, Tin Htut Paing – only 21 years old at the time – had reason to be optimistic that his country was changing for the better. But in spite of the profound political changes that have occurred in Myanmar over the past few years, he’s being hunted by the authorities once again for his political work – and feels that it’s only a matter of time before he’s arrested.
A leader of Generation Youth – a loosely organized advocacy organization dominated by activists in their early twenties – Tin Htut Paing works to promote the fundamental rights and democracy denied to the people of Myanmar during 50 years of direct military rule. When he heard that a group of recently laid-off factory workers were staging a sit-in in the shadow of Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon, he raced over as quickly as he could, and lectured them on tactics for negotiating with the owner and the authorities. “Before the demonstrations started, I had already given advice and suggestions to the workers,” he told me. “When I heard they were protesting at Sule, I went down to encourage them to not give up.”
With the activists’ support, the workers’ demonstration succeeded: the owner increased their severance package, offered to help them find new jobs, and they went home the following morning. But Tin Htut Paing wasn’t so lucky. Narrowly avoiding arrest at the demonstration, he’s been in hiding ever since. “After [the demonstration], the police came to my house at midnight, looking for me,” he said. “Today, the police came to my house again, and I heard that I would have to face trial.”
Once an international pariah rivaling North Korea for notoriety, Myanmar’s government has taken unprecedented steps to come out of the cold in recent years. Rapid political and economic reforms by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government have been rewarded in-kind by the West, which lifted most trade sanctions this year. But where civil society comes into conflict with powerful economic interests – both foreign and domestic – the narrative of Myanmar’s miraculous opening to the outside world becomes decidedly murky.
After being outlawed outright for decades, the government legalized public demonstrations in December 2011, with the passing of the Right to Peaceful Procession and Assembly Act. While it grants a modicum of freedom – in theory – where there was none before, the Assembly Act puts onerous restrictions on freedom of assembly, requiring would-be protestors to apply for permission to demonstrate five days in advance.
Local police have the right to reject applications if they meet vaguely defined criteria of threatening the “security of the State, rule of law, community’s peace and tranquility, and public morality.” In practice, few demonstrations receive an official stamp of approval, and activists rarely bother to apply. Section 18 of the Assembly Act threatens participants in unauthorized protests with “a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment or a maximum fine of thirty thousand kyat (US$31) or both.” It’s become the government’s most-used weapon against civil society over the past year. Facing at least two charges under Section 18, Tin Htut Paing is trying to avoid the dragnet.
In 2007, at the age of 17, Tin Htut Paing took to the streets of Rangoon to hand out leaflets during the “Saffron Revolution,” a monk-led uprising against military rule and the largest anti‐government protests Myanmar had seen in 20 years. When the authorities began to round up activists, he fled to the border with Thailand, where he spent almost two years studying politics and activism.
Returning to Rangoon in February 2009, he picked up where he left off, and was soon arrested for putting up posters calling for the release of political prisoners. “After I was arrested, military intelligence interrogated me. I was beaten by the SPDC [Myanmar’s former military government], and they asked me a lot of questions about things I had nothing to do with,” he said. “If I didn’t answer, they beat my body – they punched me, beat me with sticks, and sometimes hung me up by my hands in the interrogation room… they held me for 28 days, and didn’t give me any water to drink. I had to drink water out of the toilet.”
After a stint in hospital to recover from the abuses he suffered under interrogation, Tin Htut Paing was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of belonging to an illegal organization and contacting non‐state armed groups. He was also charged under Section 505(B) of Myanmar’s penal code, a passage that forbids “offence[s] against the State or against the public tranquility,” a catchall clause employed by the government – then and now – to silence critics.
His release came as part of an amnesty, the fourth carried out by Thein Sein’s government since October 2011. But the Myanmar he emerged into was a different place than the one he’d been removed from. After spending the better part of the last two decades under house arrest, pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was finally free, and her party, the National League for Democracy, announced its intention to formally re-join the political process in November. Public protests – almost unheard of under direct military rule – had become increasingly commonplace. With the yoke of dictatorship slowly lifting, the outlook on the street was decidedly optimistic for the first time in decades.
For Tin Htut Paing, the loosening of authoritarian controls served as a clarion call to action. He launched a signature campaign demanding the government provide 24‐hour electricity, coinciding with a series of candlelit vigils starting in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city. The protest soon spread to Rangoon, and by June, the city’s residents were granted electricity for 20 hours a day. A precedent had been set: the new government was responsive to their demands. People power worked.
“At the time, I felt that our government had changed something for us because we asked them to. It was a success. I felt that the government had changed – not deep changes – but that there had been some changes,” Tin Htut Paing said. “But later on, when I became involved in land rights issues, I came to realize that the changes were just superficial. It’s mostly for show for the international community.”
Land grabs by the military were common under the old military regime, which sold thousands of acres on the cheap to a cabal of crony businessmen throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Over the past two years, the displaced have begun to demand compensation and the recognition of their title claims – and although they’re less frequent than they once were, the land grabs haven’t stopped. To a government that’s trying to attract foreign investment and project an image of stability to the outside world, farmers and activists standing up for their rights threaten to disrupt its plans.
There’s no better example of this dynamic at work than the furor surrounding the Letpadaung copper mine, a joint venture between the military’s commercial arm, and Wanbao, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco. Roughly 7,000 acres were confiscated from the residents of 26 villages near the town of Monywa, just before the transition from direct military rule. What started as a localized demonstration in July 2012 soon drew activists from around the country, and a vicious crackdown in November – in which the security services used phosphorous bombs against protestors – only served to steel activists’ resolve to shut the mine down.
In July, Tin Htut Paing staged a one‐man “press conference” in front of city hall in downtown Rangoon, calling for the shutdown of the mine and for the release of all remaining political prisoners. Generation Youth has worked with displaced farmers embroiled in eight different land disputes around the country, he told me, but confiscated land was only returned in one case, in Bago.
He was arrested and held for three hours, and the police informed him that he’d been charged under Section 18 of the Association Act. But they didn’t hold him, in an effort to avoid further confrontation. “When I was detained, [close to 200] people were waiting for me in front of the police station,” he said. “[The police] were afraid they’d demonstrate, so they released me… in our organization, we have a policy that if one member is arrested, the rest of us will wait in front of the police station until they’re released.”
On August 27, he helped organize simultaneous demonstrations in Rangoon and Pyay, calling for the repeal of Section 18 itself. Eight members of Generation Youth were arrested – himself included – and the police filed further charges against him.
The precedent set by the case of Naw Ohn Hla, a prominent activist deeply involved in the Letpadaung case, has Tin Htut Paing on edge. Arrested under Section 18 on August 13 along with nine other women activists near Letpadaung, she was subsequently charged under Section 505(B) of the penal code – the same charge Tin Htut Paing faced in 2009 – and sentenced to two years in prison. “Now, the game they play with the political activists is to arrest them under Section 18 first, but later on they’ll find a way to charge you under Section 505 or something,” he said. “That’s what happened to Naw Ohn Hla.”
But the government’s ham‐fisted attempts at stamping out dissent in the Letpadaung case haven’t slowed civil society. On September 30, a protest march left Mandalay headed for the mine site, protesting the impending destruction of a monastery founded by Ledi Sayadaw, a revered turn-of-the-century religious scholar. The following day, the authorities agreed to leave the monastery alone.
Even though his work with the factory workers proved to be the final straw with the authorities, and despite the fact that he’s a wanted man now, Tin Htut Paing has no intention of giving up. “Even in hiding, I’m going to work for people. I’m going to keep moving around, to friends’ houses,” he told me. “I want the government to get rid of the 2008 constitution and write a new one, because it’s not suitable for our people. I’m going to keep working towards real democracy.”