July 7, 2012

Burma Campaign UK today called on European governments to view the arrests of around 20-30 student and youth activists in Burma on July 6th and 7th as a warning sign of the limits of reform in Burma. The arrests took place in several cities. Some of those arrested were released from jail in January this year.

Burma Campaign UK has received reports that around 20-30 people, including members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), have been arrested ahead of the 50th anniversary of soldiers storming Rangoon University, killing students and dynamiting the student union building.

Some of those arrested had planned a memorial event for the anniversary. It is probable that once the anniversary has passed those arrested could be released.

The international community has tended to talk up positive change in Burma, and play down or ignore negatives. This rose-tinted approach to policy-making on Burma needs to be replaced with a cold assessment of actual change on the ground, not based on promises of change. The probability that those arrested will be released fairly soon is likely to be used again to dismiss the significance of these arrests. However, there are several issues relating these arrests which should sound alarm bells.

These arrests have taken place despite a new law being passed supposedly legalising protests. At the time there were warnings that the law was far from adequate, and still enabled the government to arrest at will. The law legalising protests is one of the very few legal changes actually made in Burma. Most are still just promises. The fact that one of the few concrete legal changes to happen has not resulted in any real change in practice on the ground should not be ignored.

These arrests have happened across the country, in a coordinated way, and so cannot be dismissed as local authorities acting without orders, as some recent violence and arrests by police at protests have been. These arrests were nationally organised by the national government.

The arrests relate to sensitivity about past human rights abuses by the dictatorship. They are yet more evidence that the military-backed government is completely unwilling to acknowledge that any dictator, even 50 years ago, has done anything wrong. Thein Sein’s government refuses to address the issues of truth, justice and accountability for the many and serious crimes that have been committed. Without this reconciliation is impossible.

The reflex action of the government to any imagined or perceived protest which could relate to democratic change, rather than a single non-overtly political issue such as electricity supply or wages in a factory, is still mass arrests, bans and repression.

“The military-backed government was praised for a new law legalising protests but these activists have been arrested just for trying to organise a memorial event. This shows how limited real change is,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK. “Some might try to dismiss these arrests as a bump in the road in Burma’s reform process, but it should be seen as a warning sign that the government’s destination isn’t what they think it is.”

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