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October 7, 2020
One month ahead of Myanmar’s general elections, a new report deep dives into root causes of hate speech and its effect on civil society space in Myanmar
For Immediate Release
(Yangon, 8 October 2020) — Myanmar must tackle the root causes of hate speech and address impunity of perpetrators, while ensuring that measures to combat hate speech is in line with international human rights standards with robust and inclusive participation of civil society, said 19 organizations in a report published today. The immediate implementation of these calls is vital ahead of the November 2020 general elections, which has already seen the erosion of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities throughout Myanmar.
“Institutionalized hate speech in Myanmar has long been systematically disseminated by powerful actors including the military, government, ultranationalists and other maligned actors. They benefit from the constructed narratives of hate and from the division and conflict it creates in society. Hate speech also contributes to a climate where impunity for human rights violations goes unaddressed. Hate speech is already being deployed as part of campaign strategies leading up to the November 2020 general elections. Such campaigns must immediately be denounced and countered by the government and the Union Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election,” said Moe Thway, President of Generation Wave
The new joint report, “Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar,“ documents and extensively analyzes the role that hate speech, rampant misinformation campaigns, and ultranationalism have played in the resurgence of oppression and human rights violations in Myanmar and highlights the new alignment of the government and military in the proliferation of hate speech. In analyzing the trends and patterns of hate speech in Myanmar, the report identifies a number of mutually reinforcing constructed narratives aimed at advancing Buddhist-Burman dominance at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.Continue Reading…
August 22, 2019
As a Satter Fellow, Jenny Domino LL.M. ’18 focused on how social media policy limits one’s right to speak in the midst of democratic transition
By Elaine McArdle
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Jenny Domino LL.M. ’18 was awarded a Satter Human Rights Fellowship from the Human Rights Program for the 2018-2019 year. A lawyer from the Philippines, Domino spent her fellowship year with ARTICLE 19, a human rights organization focused on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and information. Over the last year, she has worked to strengthen ARTICLE 19’s response to hate speech in Myanmar, specifically as it incites and provokes violence against the Rohingya community.
Among other things, Domino wrote a human rights-based report analyzing the sufficiency of Facebook’s responses to criticism that it had failed to moderate hate speech in a timely manner in Myanmar. Her report has significantly informed ARTICLE 19 Asia’s engagement with Facebook regarding its content moderation policies. She also organized a regional workshop in spring 2019 on hate speech on social media, bringing together human rights defenders from the ASEAN region to discuss common themes of disinformation, attacks on the press, and weak social media policy.
Facebook’s community standards are the same throughout the world, but a problem occurs when rules are enforced without sufficiently taking into account the geopolitical contexts in which such content is shared, said Domino. Throughout her career, Domino has dedicated herself to deepening the commitment to international human rights law in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. In her home country of the Philippines, she led the Commission on Human Rights’ accountability project on the persons most responsible for the extrajudicial killings arising from President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. Her work proved useful in light of the International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination into whether these killings constitute crimes against humanity.
“When you enter a market and you don’t understand the political context of where you’re operating, that can be a problem,” she said. “The way certain speech is received or acted upon in one context—let’s say, the U.S. or the Netherlands—is different in a place like Myanmar or the Philippines. This distinction is more pronounced when the political context of a specific country involves atrocity crimes or systematic violence against civilians.”
The year has been “very meaningful for me,” said Domino, who will continue to specialize at the intersection of freedom of expression, corporate responsibility, and international human rights law, at the International Commission of Jurists, following her fellowship.
“I’ve learned a lot, not just in terms of substantive knowledge but the practical—and sometimes grim—aspects of working in the NGO scene. I am still trying to figure out through which capacity I can serve best, one where I can make the most impact as a lawyer. For now, I am content to have discovered a cause I deeply care about.”
The Satter Human Rights Fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocities. The fellowship is made possible by a generous gift from Muneer A. Satter J.D./M.B.A.’87. This profile is a preview of the 2018-2019 Human Rights Program Annual Report. This article was cross-posted to HLS Today’s website.
March 13, 2019
By Susan Farbstein
We’re thrilled to share this happy news: in honor of International Women’s Day 2019, the Clinic’s very own Yee Htun has been selected by the Harvard Women’s Law Association as a “Women Inspiring Change.” To say this honor is well deserved would be an understatement.
Since joining the Clinic in 2016, Yee has guided teams of students as they engage with some of the gravest and most pressing human rights issues facing her native Myanmar: ending violence against women and girls, decriminalizing sodomy laws and enshrining LGBTQI rights, repealing or revising laws that encroach on freedom of expression, documenting hate speech and designing strategies to promote tolerance, spearheading coordination between local and international organizations seeking accountability for atrocities, and improving land rights for the rural poor.
Yee’s personal story is also inspiring. Yee fled Myanmar as a young child in the late 1980s, following the military junta’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. After five years in a Thai refugee camp with her mother and sisters, the family emigrated to Canada as government-sponsored refugees. Yee would go on to earn a J.D. specialized in international law, to be selected by the Nobel Women’s Initiative to lead the first-ever international campaign to stop rape and sexual violence in conflict, and to serve as the inaugural director of the Myanmar Program at Justice Trust.
But Yee’s dazzling resume, strategic judgment, and legal accomplishments pale in comparison to who she is as a person. She earns your respect and admiration without an ounce of ego. Students are in awe of Yee without being intimidated by her. She’s a hug and a shot of adrenaline, all rolled into one.
My co-director, Tyler Giannini, echoes this sentiment: “There are people who just naturally connect with others and inspire them to action—Yee is one of them. She has a tremendous ability to bring people together, which is so critical in a place like Myanmar where the military has tried to divide people for so long. She leads with her energy, which is contagious. And she leads with her commitment to justice, which is unwavering.”
I have watched, again and again, as clinical teams working with Yee are transformed by the experience—discovering not just their passion for human rights but also the confidence to act, speak, and lead in ways that they might never have imagined without her support and mentorship.
So it comes as no surprise that Yee’s students nominated her for this recognition, singling out her “courage, empathy, and tenacity” as particularly inspiring. Describing a recent trip to Myanmar, the students emphasized her incomparable “optimism and relentless advocacy” as she balanced strategizing with local partners, drafting human rights reports, and leading workshops, all while mentoring and training them.
I first met Yee at a staff meeting when I returned from a semester of leave and was immediately drawn in by her confidence, sincerity, and good humor. As she discussed the work that she and her students had undertaken that term, I was overwhelmed by how much she had accomplished, and energized by her warmth and enthusiasm. I still feel that way every time we speak—impressed, inspired, and invigorated.
Yee, thank you for giving so much of yourself to your students and your work. Thank you for being not only a generous colleague, but also a friend and a true role model. Thank you for motivating us all to rise to your level.
November 27, 2018
Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law Yee Htun was profiled in the Harvard Gazette on November 19, 2018. The article explored Htun’s personal journey fleeing persecution in her birth country of Myanmar and returning there to help advance law reform efforts After years spent in the field working to end sexual violence in conflict, among other issues, she came to the the International Human Rights Clinic in 2016 where she now teaches human rights advocacy and works on projects focused on women’s rights, hate speech, and de-escalation of communal tensions in Myanmar and neighboring countries. As she states:
“We want to show that the law cannot only be a tool for oppression,” said Htun. “What drew me to law was the fact that it is a crucial tool for change and can play a key role in safeguarding democracy and enshrining rights. That’s the lesson I have learned in my personal journey and one that I hope to share with my students and the communities we serve.”
Read the full piece on the Harvad Gazette website.
June 9, 2016
Today marks the grim five-year anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State. This conflict, between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Organizations at the local and international level have also documented severe human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence and forced labor.
The International Human Rights Clinic today joins 129 other organizations in calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin State.
“Joint Statement: Five Years of War- A Call for Peace, Justice and Accountability in Kachin State”
(June 9, 2016)— Although much of the world has expressed excitement over Myanmar’s political transition, communities throughout Kachin and northern Shan states have been living with severe human rights abuses and displacement for the last five years.
Since 2011, renewed armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Continue Reading…
November 5, 2015
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
Tomorrow is Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) hearing in Geneva. Today, a coalition of groups issued a statement calling for accountability for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, the head of Myanmar’s UPR process:
International Human Rights Organizations Call for Accountability of
Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs
November 5, 2015
We, the undersigned organizations, call for Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Population, to be held accountable for his involvement in human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On November 6, 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council will review Myanmar’s human rights record during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. Regrettably, the Myanmar Government has appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for its UPR process.
Hundreds of civil society organizations in Myanmar have signed a petition expressing their concern about Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s role in the UPR process, as well as the current impunity at the national level that exists for his involvement in abuses. They have called on the international community to take concrete steps to hold him accountable.
Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has a well-documented track record of human rights violations. He led Myanmar’s Southern Command during a military offensive in Kayin State from 2005-2008. According to a report released by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, there is sufficient evidence against him to satisfy the standard required to issue an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for his command over soldiers that intentionally attacked, killed, tortured, enslaved, and forcibly transferred civilians.
In his current position as the Minister of Home Affairs, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including violations of the rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. For example, strong evidence exists that the Myanmar Police Force, which is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has repeatedly used unlawful and excessive force against peaceful protesters. In November 2012, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko was accused of authorizing riot police to use white phosphorus munitions to disperse peaceful protesters—mostly monks and villagers—at the Letpadaung Copper Mine, resulting in severe chemical burns of more than 100 people. In March 2015, the police again used excessive force in the town of Letpadan against unarmed protesters calling for reforms to the National Education Law.
The Human Rights Council has called upon the Myanmar Government to take all necessary measures to ensure accountability and end impunity for violations of human rights. This recommendation also was made during Myanmar’s previous UPR in 2011 and has been reiterated in advance questions for the forthcoming UPR this year. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recommended in both her March and October 2015 reports that the Government address impunity for human rights violations committed by security personnel.
In light of Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s track record, we call on the Myanmar Government to remove him as the head of its UPR process, and to initiate a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation into the allegations of his involvement in human rights violations and international crimes. The international community should lend support to any investigation and prosecution. If the Myanmar Government does not pursue accountability in a prompt and effective manner, the international community should initiate its own investigation into Lt. Gen. Ko Ko’s responsibility for human rights violations and international crimes, and governments should pursue appropriate legal action against him if he enters their territory under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Burma Campaign UK
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
Global Justice Center
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
US Campaign for Burma
World Organization Against Torture
November 5, 2015
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@example.com; Twitter: @AmyAlexSmith @FortifyRights
Matthew Bugher, lead author and researcher, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and consultant to Fortify Rights: +95.9401596412; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; 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 to meet 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.
May 11, 2015
Posted by Matthew Thiman, JD '16, and Tyler Giannini
It only happens once every four years: a full UN review of Myanmar’s human rights record. With its rather generic name—the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”)—this UN process does not often get much attention. But it should. Especially when the head of Myanmar’s delegation is someone like Lieutenant General Ko Ko—the country’s Home Affairs Minister, a man who has been linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It was quite a moment when we at the International Human Rights Clinic realized that Ko Ko was in charge of Myanmar’s UPR process. We know Ko Ko well because we have been investigating his central role in a brutal Myanmar Army offensive for the last four years. We published our findings in a legal memorandum last November, implicating Ko Ko and two other military commanders in violent attacks on civilians.
Exactly a year after the release of our findings, the Myanmar delegation is scheduled to answer questions about its human rights record as part of the UPR process. If Ko Ko in fact ends up leading that delegation, it will say a lot about the status of reform in a country that says it is committed to human rights. With over 1000 pages of witness testimonies and expert declarations implicating him in international crimes, Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.
NOTE: The International Human Rights Clinic made a submission to the UPR process in March, detailing the findings of the Clinic’s investigation. The submission notes Myanmar’s ongoing obligations to provide remedies for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and also highlights that high-ranking officials like Ko Ko have been promoted instead of investigated.
April 7, 2015
Posted by Cara Solomon
We’re pleased to report that The Irrawaddy, an online news magazine in Myanmar, has just published “How One Father’s Letters Got Him Convicted,” an Op-Ed by Matt Thiman, JD ’16, Courtney Svoboda, JD ’16, and Tyler Giannini. The piece tells the story of Brang Shawng, a grieving father whose request for an investigation into his daughter’s death led to charges from the Myanmar military. The Clinic was among several organizations in December to sign an open letter to the President of Mynamar, requesting that all charges be dropped.
The piece begins:
Shortly after his daughter’s death, Brang Shawng sat down to write the first of two letters that would eventually get him convicted. He wrote to the president of Myanmar first, and then to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wanting to know what had happened to his daughter, whom he believed had been shot by the Myanmar military.
“A submission is made with great respect,” he wrote to the president, “to find out the truth in connection with the killing, without a reason, of an innocent student, my daughter Ma Ja Seng Ing, who wore a white and green school uniform.”
In the letter, he recalled the day in his village clearly. It was Sept. 13, 2012, in an area of conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military in the north of the country. A column of Myanmar Army soldiers had been in the village since before dawn. Late that afternoon, as the column was preparing to leave, there was a loud bomb blast. Then suddenly, soldiers shooting, and the sound of shouting and crying as villagers tried to take cover.
“It was just like the end of the world,” Brang Shawng wrote.
He hid with his wife and two children in their home. But one of their children was not with them: his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing.
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