Blog: Matt Bugher
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October 9, 2015
Myanmar: Hold police accountable for crackdown at Letpadan; Free wrongfully imprisoned protesters
New report finds police blocked peaceful assembly, used excessive force
(YANGON—October 10, 2015) Myanmar police officers used excessive force during a crackdown on protesters and arrested more than 100 individuals in Letpadan, Bago Region in March, according to a new report (summaries available in English and Burmese) released today by Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (“the Clinic”). Authorities should release individuals wrongfully detained for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, the organizations said.
Compiling evidence from dozens of eyewitness accounts, more than 500 photographs (see slideshow), and 40 videos, Fortify Rights and the Clinic found that police brutally punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs in the town of Letpadan on March 10. Police also beat protesters in police custody, including at least one protester being treated in an ambulance and others whose hands were bound behind their backs.
“The government should hold to account those police officers that used excessive force against the protesters,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “This crackdown occurred in broad daylight. Police officers are clearly visible on film and in photos beating unarmed protesters, yet they walk free while the protesters are behind bars.”
The new report, Crackdown at Letpadan: Excessive Use of Force and Violations of the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Expression in Letpadan, Bago Region, Myanmar, also details how not all police officers at the scene participated in violence during the crackdown. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attacks by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers.
Police arrested 127 protesters, journalists, and bystanders in Letpadan on March 10. Seventy-seven men and women of those arrested in Letpadan face charges that carry sentences of up to nine years and six months imprisonment. Several student leaders face multiple counts under a law relating to peaceful assembly, potentially adding years to their sentences. In the weeks and months following the crackdown at Letpadan, Myanmar authorities have arrested dozens of additional student leaders and activists for involvement in the protests at Letpadan and elsewhere.
“The decision of Myanmar authorities to prosecute protesters rather than those police officers that committed abuses doesn’t bode well for a country on the cusp of national elections,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic. “Justice demands the authorities release those wrongfully arrested in Letpadan and drop charges against peaceful protesters.”
On September 11, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) issued a statement calling for police officers responsible for the use of excessive force at Letpadan to be disciplined. The statement alleged that the beating of protesters led to injuries, and that the protesters should not be facing charges under the penal code.
Fortify Rights and the Clinic welcomed the MNHRC’s investigation and statement on the events in Letpadan, but noted that it failed to address all the violations related to the protest and crackdown in Letpadan. In particular, the MNHRC failed to address restrictions on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression as well as the arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals connected to the protests.
Under international law, arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are engaging in a protected activity, such as exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
In January 2015, protesters began to march south from Mandalay to demonstrate their opposition to the National Education Law passed by Parliament in September 2014. In early March, police blockaded the protesters at Letpadan. As the protesters attempted to challenge the blockade on March 10, police officers violently dispersed the group of 200 protesters.
“The events leading up to the crackdown failed to justify the massive wave of violence unleashed by police officers,” said Matthew Smith. “This crackdown is ongoing and reveals the shallow depth of human rights reform in Myanmar.”
For more information, please contact:
Amy Smith, Executive Director, Fortify Rights (in Yangon): +66.87.795.5454; [email protected]; Twitter: @AmyAlexSmith @FortifyRights
Matthew Bugher, lead author and researcher, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and consultant to Fortify Rights: +95.9401596412; [email protected]; [email protected]; Twitter: @bughermk1
Students from the International Human Rights Clinic—Roi Bachmutsky (JD ’17), Roni Druks (JD ’17), Courtney Svoboda (JD ’16), Matthew Thiman (JD ’16), Yao Yang (Harvard/Berkeley JD ’16), and Sharon Yuen (LLM ’16)—provided essential support in reviewing evidence as well as with writing and editing for the report. The team worked under the direction of the report’s lead researcher, Matthew Bugher, who was a Global Justice Fellow at Harvard Law School as well as Tyler Giannini, co-director of the Clinic.
March 23, 2014
Myanmar: Military Must Reform Policies to Prevent Unlawful Attacks on Civilians
Longstanding policies and practices threaten the safety of civilians, the peace process, and democratic reforms
March 24, 2014, Yangon, Myanmar— The Myanmar military must reform policies and practices that threaten civilian populations in the country, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a memorandum released today.
Policy Memorandum: Preventing Indiscriminate Attacks and Wilful Killings of Civilians by the Myanmar Military describes a pattern of attacks that has unfolded over several decades. The memorandum identifies the policies and practices that give rise to such attacks and proposes a practical program of reform.
“The Myanmar military needs to publicly renounce and reverse the longstanding policies that have resulted in attacks on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law,” said Matthew Bugher, Clinical Advocacy Fellow at the Clinic. “Until problematic military policies and practices are fundamentally reformed, civilians will remain at risk wherever and whenever military force is deployed.”
The memorandum draws from the findings of an ongoing investigation by the Clinic into the conduct of Myanmar Army units during a 2005–2008 counterinsurgency offensive in eastern Myanmar. During eleven field missions to the region, the Clinic compiled more than 1,000 pages of witness statements from survivors of military attacks and former soldiers, among others.
The Clinic documented numerous “shoot-on-sight” incidents in which soldiers opened fire on civilians, including women, children, and elderly persons. Myanmar Army soldiers often shot at villagers as they fled their homes with family members. Witnesses also described executions, the deliberate placement of landmines in civilian locations, and the indiscriminate shelling of villages and agricultural fields.
In many parts of Myanmar, attacks on civilians have decreased dramatically with the signing of ceasefire agreements between ethnic armed groups and the central government. However, progress has been inconsistent, and reports of continuing abuses raise serious concerns. Notably, since the failure of a seventeen-year-old ceasefire agreement between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), there have been persistent allegations of attacks on civilians by the Myanmar military in Kachin State and northern Shan State. These reports suggest that recent improvements in civilian security are the result of a decrease in armed conflict, rather than the reform of military policies and practices at a national level.
“The reports of attacks on civilians in Kachin State are disturbingly similar to those documented during previous military offensives,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “The military must prioritize civilian protection if it is to meet its stated commitment to become a modern, professional army.”
The Clinic is particularly concerned by the orders given to soldiers in military-defined “black areas.” In these regions, soldiers are often instructed that all individuals are “the enemy” and are therefore legitimate targets of attack. This practice is a per se violation of the principle of distinction, a key tenet of international humanitarian law that requires combatants to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
The Clinic calls on the military to immediately renounce all counterinsurgency policies and practices that lead to the targeting of civilians. However, this action alone will be insufficient. Protecting civilians in Myanmar will require a concerted effort to overturn entrenched norms and longstanding military practices. The Clinic’s memorandum identifies the institutional causes of civilian targeting at all levels of military authority. For example, it considers the policies formulated by senior generals, the orders given by field commanders, and the challenges facing foot soldiers on the front lines. The memorandum outlines a program of reform that aims to influence the institutional culture of the military and the decision-making processes of individual soldiers throughout the military hierarchy.
“The Myanmar military should act immediately to end unlawful attacks in black areas and conflict zones,” said Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Such failures to address the underlying institutional causes of civilian targeting will endanger communities, threaten the peace process, and undermine reform efforts.”
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