Burma Campaign UK condemns the violent attacks on and arrests of protesting students in Letpadan yesterday. More than 100 students were arrested and a similar number believed injured.
The crackdown exposes the shallow nature of Burma’s reform process.
Burma Campaign UK is calling on the British government, European Union, USA and other donors to conduct a full review of all their direct and indirect assistance to the government of Burma, to ensure that international aid is not being used to modernise and improve the institutions of an authoritarian regime, instead of assisting a genuine transition to democracy.
In an authoritarian country such as Burma, it cannot credibly be argued that police were acting completely independently or were simply out of control. If firm orders had been given to police that violence was not to be used against students, and those orders enforced by commanders, it is unlikely police would have acted as they did.
Since the students began their protest march in January they have faced threats, harassment, obstruction and had their protest banned. The education law itself and the threats and harassment of those opposing it, originate with the central government, and cannot only be blamed on local police forces. Rangoon students and activists supporting them have also faced violence and arrest from police and regime-backed thugs.
Calls from the international community for an investigation into the violence, without taking any further action, are meaningless. The European Union and other governments know full well that there is absolutely no chance of the Burmese government carrying out any kind of genuine investigation into the violence against students.
Burma’s police force is under the control of the Home Affairs Ministry, which in turn is under the control of Lt Gen Ko Ko, against whom there is evidence of war crimes. It is now more than four months since a report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School detailed the evidence against the Home Affairs Minister, and still not one government has publicly expressed any concern or taken any action regarding a war criminal running this Ministry.
The violent attacks on students and the arrests were widely predicted by activists in Burma and by international human rights organisations. Calls were made on the international community, including to the UK, EU and USA, to make it clear to the government of Burma that any attacks on students would be unacceptable and would have consequences. However, it appears no high level effort or significant public effort was made by any country to try to prevent the attacks on students.
There is widespread concern and anger in Burma about the European Union training of Burma’s police force, including calls on the European Union to halt the training. Burma’s police force is under the control of an authoritarian government, and is used by that government to implement its will and implement repressive laws. Without genuine political reform in Burma, making Burma’s government democratic and accountable to the people, there will be severe limitations on how effective any training of Burma’s police force can be. There will always be a risk that training and equipment, even though provided with the best of intentions, will be used by the government for repression.
The European Union cannot continue with its training of the police without support from the public in Burma. The European Union needs to review how it can continue with the training programme without risking the training and equipment being used for repression. There needs to be greater transparency in the training programme, and conditions set for fundamental reforms to the police force, and its accountability and command structure.
The UK, European Union, USA and other donors to Burma have questions to answer about the role they have played, both through action and inaction, in the run-up to the violent crackdown on protesting students.
- They must fully and publicly disclose what involvement they have had, directly and indirectly, including through funding and technical advice and support, in education reforms in Burma, and the drafting of the education reform law.
- The European Union must make public what commitments to reform and human rights it received from the government of Burma, both in terms of general commitment to reform, and specific commitment to reform of the police, such as making them more accountable, and changing their mandate, manual and procedures, before agreeing to train the Burmese police force. If no such commitments were sought or received, why did the EU not try to seek any commitments before offering training?
- The European Union should publish the Memorandum of Understanding and other related agreements with the Burmese government regarding police training.
- Burma’s police force is controlled by the Home Affairs Ministry, which in turn is led by Lt Gen Ko Ko, against whom there is documented evidence of war crimes. The EU, UK, USA and others should now disclose whether or not they have raised concerns about this with President Thein Sein, and if not, why not. They should also disclose if they conducted any review into whether or not to continue working with and assisting the Home Affairs Ministry after evidence of Lt Gen Ko Ko’s involvement in war crimes came to light, and if so, why they decided to continue working with him.
- The European Union should disclose full details of all the equipment they have supplied to the police or any other authorities in Burma. This should include type of equipment, quantities, and cost.
- UK and other EU member states should publish details of what equipment they have supplied or licensed for export to the Burmese police force, or other Burmese national or local government authorities and institutions.
- The European Union must disclose what procedures it uses to ensure that the police officers it trains have not been involved in human rights violations, including torture.
Burma Campaign UK is concerned about the muted response of the international community to the crackdown on protesting students, which stands in stark contrast to statements and actions taken after similar crackdowns by the previous regime. This mirrors a general reluctance to strongly condemn or take action on human rights violations by the government of Burma. Gaining international acceptance, getting sanctions lifted, and receiving aid and investment, was a prime motivator for the reform process. Weak and muted responses to human rights violations encourage the government of Burma to believe it can continue to commit human rights abuses without consequences.