Investigate allegations of forced labor and torture in Rakhine State

(August 4, 2016, Yangon)— The Myanmar authorities should immediately release ethnic-Rakhine human rights defender Khaing Myo Htun and investigate allegations of human rights abuses by Myanmar Army soldiers against Rakhine civilians, Fortify Rights said today. Khaing Myo Htun is being arbitrarily detained in Sittwe prison for his involvement in legitimate work as a human rights defender 

“The arbitrary detention of Khaing Myo Htun appears to be another attempt by the military to cover up abuse and silence human rights defenders,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “This is the wrong approach. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Khaing Myo Htun, drop all charges against him, and work to end the cycle of impunity in Rakhine State.” 

On July 25, Sittwe police arrested Khaing Myo Htun, 34, in Baukthisu Ward, Sittwe Township, Rakhine State. Khaing Myo Htun is the deputy information officer for the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)—the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army, which signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar authorities in 2012.

On April 24, 2016, the ALP alleged in a public statement that the Myanmar Army used civilian forced labor and was responsible for international crimes against civilians in Rakhine State. Armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army—an armed opposition group excluded from ongoing “peace talks”—has been ongoing in Rakhine State since April 2015. The conflict has resulted in the displacement of more than 1,100 civilians, mostly Rakhine Buddhists, in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Kyauktaw townships in Rakhine State since April 2015. 

On April 27, Rakhine State Border Affairs and Security Minister Colonel Htein Lin summoned Khaing Myo Htun to government offices in Sittwe and threatened him personally with prosecution if the ALP’s allegations could not be substantiated. On May 1, Khaing Myo Htun submitted to the authorities in Sittwe Township evidence that formed the basis of the ALP’s allegations. The ALP has video files documenting allegations of forced labor, torture, and other abuses. 

On May 5, Lieutenant-Colonel Tin Naing Tun from the Myanmar Army’s Sittwe-based Regional Operations Command filed charges against Khaing Myo Htun under Sections 505(b) and (c) of the Myanmar Penal Code, for sedition and incitement, respectively. Khaing Myo Htun failed to appear at two court hearings and was subsequently arrested and detained on July 25. 

Under international law, arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are arrested or detained for engaging in activity that is protected under international law, such as exercising the rights to freedom of expression. Khaing Myo Htun was exercising his right to freedom of expression by speaking on behalf of the ALP about alleged abuses committed by the Myanmar Army against civilians in Rakhine State. 

Sections 505(b) and (c) of the Myanmar Penal Code prohibit “any statement, rumor or report . . . with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public…” and “with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community…” Violations of Section 505 are punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine, or both. Myanmar authorities have long used the broad and vague provisions in the law to silence human rights defenders.

The prosecution of Khaing Myo Htun under Section 505(b) and (c) would violate international law, said Fortify Rights. 

Khaing Myo Htun is scheduled to appear at a hearing in Sittwe Township Court on August 5 and is expected to request to be released on bail.

In March 2016, Fortify Rights conducted an independent investigation into allegations of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in Kyauktaw Township, Rakhine State. Fortify Rights and partners documented seven cases of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in December 2015 and January 2016. Myanmar Army soldiers forced ethnic-Rakhine civilians to dig graves and carry supplies under the threat of death during fighting with the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. 

“As far as we know, there continues to be a lack of accountability for these abuses, and the military is doubling down with the detention of Khaing Myo Htun,” said Matthew Smith. “Khaing Myo Htun has a long history of working for human rights, justice, and accountability. His work is essential to ensure these abuses no longer happen and that perpetrators are held accountable.” 

Khaing Myo Htun is a well-known and respected member of civil society in Rakhine State. He has worked as a human rights defender and environmental activist in Myanmar for more than a decade. In 2008 he founded Natural Resources for the People—an organization advocating for the rights of farmers, women, and ethnic leaders in Rakhine State. 

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines human rights defenders broadly as persons who act “to promote or protect human rights.” According to OHCHR, human rights defenders often “contribute to securing justice on behalf of victims in specific cases of human rights violation and to breaking patterns of impunity, thereby preventing future violations.” 

The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders further provides principles to protect the work of individual human rights defenders and organizations, specifically with regard to ensuring the right to freedom of expression and the right to seek, obtain, receive, and hold information relating to human rights 

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has prioritized peace and national reconciliation since the National League for Democracy established a new government in April. A “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference”–named after the Panglong Conference between Aung San Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San and Shan, Kachin, and Chin representatives in 1947–is scheduled to take place this month with the aim of ending Myanmar’s decades-long civil wars. 

The Myanmar military maintains far-reaching political power in the country, appointing 25 percent of seats in Parliament while controlling the Ministries of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs. 

“The army’s ongoing abuses against civilians and human rights defenders can only aggravate the already tenuous peace process,” said Matthew Smith. “It’s crucial that the authorities use all available evidence of abuses by the army to establish the facts and hold perpetrators accountable.”

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