Thousands of Burmese this week protested the plight of three anti-war activists who were jailed for six months for allegedly defaming the military. The protests marked a rare show of public anger directed towards the increasingly oppressive government, which is led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. The “crime” of the three activists is the organization of a protest in the Kachin state. This Protest highlighted the humanitarian crisis that was created by an ongoing conflict between rebels and the military. The conflict has caused huge displacement and suffering among the Kachin people, with around 100,000 people living in refugee camps. These convictions came around the anniversary of the 2017 imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who reported on the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military forces.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights, Yanghee Lee told The Nation that the convictions were “wholly unacceptable” and cited them as “another case in which the Myanmar government is failing to uphold human rights and democratic principles.” Thomas Kean, former editor of the Myanmar Times said to the Washington Post, “The right to freedom of expression is not guaranteed – it is conditional on not challenging the government or the military, on not crossing their red lines.”
State Counsellor, Suu Kyi was arguably one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners, who was kept under a house arrest by the Myanmar ruling junta between 1989 and 2010. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her struggles for democracy, human rights and ethnic unification through peaceful means. Upon her release, she returned to politics, rising to power in 2016. Since Suu Kyi was a victim of government oppression herself, her rise to power was seen as a positive step forward for Maynamar. The tragic irony is that her government is now using draconian laws to oppress and imprison those who dare speak out about ongoing atrocities that are being committed by the military. Silencing and imprisoning critics is an archaic tactic that has no place in a modern democratic society.
Under Suu Kyi’s leadership, the Rohingya crisis in the northern state of Rakhine has seen around 900,000 Rohingya Muslims flee to neighboring countries. All in hopes of escaping the campaign of murder, destruction, and violence led by the Maynamar military with support from the government. Myanmar has faced widespread criticism from the international community in relation to its treatment of the Rohingya people, with the United Nations saying that the atrocities could be classed as genocide. Myanmar has denied ethnic cleansing, claiming its actions were in response to attacks by Rohingya militants, and that the military’s actions were an attempt to create a safer country for Burmese citizens. Last month, Amnesty International withdrew its Ambassador of Conscience award previously given to Suu Kyi. Amnesty International Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo wrote to Suu Kyi saying, “We are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defence of human rights.”
While this week’s imprisonment of the three activists has not received the same international coverage as the Reuters journalists, it is just as indicative of the Myanmar government’s oppressive approach to its critics. Suu Kyi has the ability to grant a pardon to those imprisoned but has chosen not to do so, instead, she defends the judiciary as fair and just. The right to freedom of speech and protest is fundamental to the citizens of any democracy, and the Myanmar government should respect the rights of all activists, journalists and citizens. Releasing those who have been imprisoned for doing nothing more than speaking out against the government would be step in the right direction.