Myanmar: The land of make believe

The president wants to make the world believe that Myanmar has changed, that anyone can voice their political opinions without fear of what might happen to them.

That there is media freedom. That his country is on the way to reforming itself after decades of military rule. The world praises the president’s efforts and foreign dignitaries flow in.

Back in the real world, life in Myanmar is not the fairytale they would have us believe. Authorities are harassing and arresting people who criticise the government: journalists for publishing a story; student leaders for organising marches, community leaders for defending human rights; lawyers for promoting justice in the courts and union activists for staging strikes in support of workers’ rights. No-one is safe to speak out.

Myanmar is not the fairytale they would have us believe.

Amnesty International

A very short chapter

For nearly half a century, Myanmar was ruled by the military. Infamous for imprisoning huge amounts of people who dared to speak out against the government. In 2011, after long awaited elections, President Thein Sein came to power and began – it seemed – to make a change. Media censorship was relaxed and, if certain rules were followed, peaceful protests were allowed. Hundreds of people, arrested simply because of their political beliefs were released. It appeared Myanmar was entering a new chapter.

That chapter was short-lived. As elections on 8 November draw near, the authorities are sliding back into old ways – harassing and arresting peaceful activists simply for disagreeing with, or criticizing the government. 

In prison for voicing an opinion

Student leaders arrested for organising marches
Activists arrested for expressing opinions and criticizing the government
Journalists arrested for publishing a story

Locked up, shut up

Twenty-seven year old student leader, Phyoe Phyoe Aung is facing over nine years in jail. Her crime? Helping to organize marches in early 2015 against a new law she – and many other students – believe limits academic freedom.

I want to be able to contribute, as a good citizen, in whatever way I can – either to build the nation, to transform the country, or to revolutionize the system.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung

Htin Lin Oo, a writer and former spokesperson for the National League for Democracy, is serving two years in prison with hard labour for insulting religion. His crime? He gave a speech at a literary event in October 2014, criticizing the use of Buddhism to fuel discrimination and prejudice.

Chief Executive Tint San and four journalists Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw and Sithu Soe (the Unity 5), are each serving seven years in prison for disclosing state secrets, trespassing and taking photos of a restricted area. Their crime? Publishing an article claiming that there was a secret chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar.

All those activities are beyond my wildest imagination. The extent of the campaign and hundreds of personal letters written to me and my family made me very emotional and humbled.

Dr Tun Aung

You can make change happen

The elections are a chance to push the authorities to release people who have been locked-up simply for expressing their opinions. And we know that your social media posts, petition signatures and letters make a huge difference.

Earlier this year campaigners worldwide celebrated the release of community leader Dr Tun Aung. He had been jailed in 2012 and was serving 17 years after trying to calm a crowd during riots in Myanmar. His release followed more than two years of pressure from Amnesty supporters, including during Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights campaign. Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission said our letters prompted them to look further into what had happened to Dr Tun Aung.

This is real life, not make believe

Hungry for foreign approval, President Thein Sein wants us to believe that no-one is arrested for peacefully exercising their rights. He knows that the international community is closely watching the upcoming elections, seeing them as a sign of whether Myanmar is serious about respecting human rights. His treatment of people peacefully expressing their opinions (prisoners of conscience) are the litmus test by which he will be judged.