Blog: Matt Smith
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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, 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:
Tyler Giannini, Director, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic: +1-617-496-7368; [email protected]; Twitter: @HmnRghtsProgram
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.
May 26, 2015
Posted by Courtney Svoboda, JD '16
This past January, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to a small rural community on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. While the Clinic had been there many times before, it was my first time. There, we met the survivors of a brutal military offensive in Eastern Myanmar. As children ran up and down the aisles of the makeshift meetinghouse, we spoke with the villagers about the document we had written—a document that was, in a sense, their own.
On the strength of more than 1,000 pages of their testimony, we had produced a legal memorandum that made a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also implicated current high-ranking military and government officials. Last November, when it was released, the findings sparked a discussion about accountability in a country that is, for the most part, considered to be on the path to reform.
When we finished telling the villagers all of this, I expected people to ask questions or to begin filtering down the dusty aisles towards the exits. Instead, after a few more minutes of silence, a man stood up and began telling us a story about his life. After he finished, another person rose to speak. Slowly, one by one, more came forward to talk to us.
As the crowd dwindled, one woman approached, her young son’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck, and started telling her story. A few years earlier, the Myanmar military had come into her village, shooting at people and burning homes as they moved through the streets. She took shelter in the jungle with her children, but without proper food or medicine, one of them died; then another; then a third.
I knew this story. I had read it back in Cambridge while working on the Clinic’s legal memorandum. But it was one thing to process her story from a distance. It was another to stand in front of her.
I have always believed in the power of storytelling to create empathy and human connection. But somewhere along the way in law school, I lost sight of it. I got distracted, poring over pages of documents, piecing together facts, checking grammar, debating sentence structure. It was easy to forget that at the heart of the Clinic’s work are people, wanting to be heard.
For those three weeks in January, our clinical team listened to people all over Myanmar. We heard about ongoing abuses in Shan State and Kachin State. We heard about police crackdowns at Letpadaung. The stories are everywhere.
Ironically enough, a story I heard back in Cambridge left one of the deepest impressions. It came from U Teikkha Nyana, a monk who participated in a panel discussion the Clinic organized on accountability in Myanmar.
Speaking in his crimson robes via Skype, U Teikkha Nyana took the audience of law students and professors back to a dark, brisk night in Letpadaung in northern Myanmar, where hundreds of monks were lined up in peaceful protest outside of a copper mine. First, he recalled how the police doused the men with water; then, how they shot canisters of white phosphorus, an acidic weapon that burns flesh.
“We kept our heads down, covered ourselves with robes and blankets, and took the brunt of it,” U Teikkha Nyana told us.
He waited for his words to be translated, then began again.
“My robes and blankets that were soaking wet suddenly caught on fire . . . . I was engulfed in flames.”
Another pause, as the audience absorbed those words.
“I raised my arms up and screamed at them, ‘Look what you have done. Do you see what you have done?’”
From the moment U Teikkha Nyana started speaking, I was captivated. It was more than just the words that he spoke. It was seeing him speak, hearing the inflection in his voice, seeing the look in eyes—the depth of compassion, pain, and ultimately hope. I already knew the facts about the crackdown in Letpadaung; I had read the statistics. But here was one man, in front of me, telling his story, a small window into the experiences of others like him who have also suffered.
It brought me back to that day in the village, when one person after another stepped forward—story after story, followed by a sea of handshakes and heartfelt thanks.
There is no one way to achieve accountability in Myanmar. That much is clear. Different communities and advocates will have different ideas, and it is not my place to define that path. But at the center of it all, surely, are stories—the stories of the many who have suffered, from the villagers at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to the monks whose burns are still healing. These stories should be heard. These stories need to be a part of the conversation.
U Teikkha Nyana and the villagers at the heart of the Clinic’s work: thank you for sharing your stories. I, for one, feel honored to have heard them.
Below is the video from the Clinic’s panel discussion featuring U Teikkha Nyana, who is suing the Home Affairs Minister, Major General Ko Ko, for his responsibility in the Letpadaung crackdown. Ko Ko is one of the high-ranking government officials implicated in the Clinic’s legal memorandum. The panel also included U Teikkha Nyana’s lawyer, U Aung Thein; Roger Normand, of Justice Trust; and Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights.
April 1, 2015
Tomorrow, Thursday, April 2: “Ties to the Top: The Role of Government Officials in Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar”
April 2, 2015
“Ties to the Top: The Role of Government Officials in Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar”
As Myanmar approaches its second election later this year, join us for a discussion about accountability and its place in the country’s reform efforts. Panelists Roger Normand, of Justice Trust, and Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights, will join two advocates from Myanmar:
U Teikkha Nyana, a Buddhist monk who was severely injured two years ago when riot police used white phosphorus weapons to attack peaceful protesters; he recently joined with other injured monks to file an unprecedented lawsuit against the local police chief and the Home Affairs Minister. U Teikkha Nyana will join the conversation via Skype.
U Aung Thein, a Supreme Court advocate from Yangon who has represented more than 150 political prisoners, including leaders of the Saffron Revolution and Generation 88.
Tyler Giannini will moderate the discussion.
This event is being co-sponsored by HLS East Asian Legal Studies
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