No improvement on civic space: Myanmar shuns international scrutiny
As concerns continue to grow over atrocities committed by security forces in Rakhine state, authorities in Myanmar have come under increasing international pressure to allow independent investigators into the conflict zone. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is reported to include atrocities such as killings, torture and rape by security forces. In a recent visit to the European Union (EU), Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi clashed with EU representatives over the UN Human Rights Council's resolution to establish a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations, which was adopted in March. Suu Kyi rejected the resolution in a move that has been viewed by many as emblematic of Myanmar's attempts to avoid addressing its grievous human rights record. A recent UN report estimates that 75,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh. The report also includes interviews with refugees who give harrowing accounts of crimes which "very likely" amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the number of protests against companies dealing with extractive industries has risen recently. On 24th March 2017, protests over land rights in the Sagaing region turned violent when demonstrators clashed with security forces. The protest was part of an ongoing dispute between the Chinese-owned Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd and local residents who have been negatively affected by the companies mining operations. Local residents have organised repeated demonstrations to demand compensation after the construction of the mining project damaged their crops. Ten villagers and six police officers were injured after police fired rubber bullets into a crowd blocking access to the mine. Authorities claim they were provoked by protesters throwing projectiles. Amnesty International issued a press release urging the authorities to investigate the use of excessive force during demonstrations in the region, describing the situation thus:
"According to one community member, the injured protesters did not go to hospital out of fear of being arrested and charged in connection with the protest. Local authorities reported that six police officers were wounded by protesters using catapults. The communities have not denied that some protesters used catapults. However, video footage of the incident appears to shows police opening fire on protesters without immediate provocation".
Following the violent incident on 24th March 2017, the town's authorities issued an order banning local villagers from forming assemblies of more than five people, blocking roads, and carrying swords, machetes, slingshots and flammable materials. A few days later, on 27th March 2017 the authorities charged 50 farmers with assault, illegal assembly and destruction of state property.
Authorities in Myanmar temporarily halted the mine's operation in an attempt to ease the tension between local residents and the corporation.
As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, restrictions on freedom of expression are a serious concern in Myanmar. In a recent report by PEN International's Myanmar chapter, 14 CSOs focusing on press freedom and free expression published a scorecard to measure the National League for Democracy (NLD) government's progress on improving protection of free speech since it came to power a year ago. The report gave Aung San Suu Kyi's administration an appalling score of 8 out of a possible 60, citing the significant lack of reforms of restrictive legislation as a key factor contributing to the low score. The report also highlighted the alarming prevalence of individuals being prosecuted by authorities for exercising their right to freedom of speech:
“Under the current government, there have been over 60 individuals sued under article 66[d] of the Telecommunications Law, which sets the record on oppression of freedom of expression — this is even worse than back under the President Thein Sein government”.
PEN's Myanmar chapter also raised concerns over the growing number of travel bans on local journalists, namely cases of barring local journalists from covering conflicts in northern and western Myanmar, which has prevented local media from accurately documenting events in the regions. Furthermore, local journalists have expressed concern over their minimal access to decision makers and policy-making within the legislature, with some media even claiming that access to decision makers was in fact better under the previous regime.