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Photo by Aung Khant of the Myanmar Times (https://www.mmtimes.com/news/court-sets-final-hearing-former-child-soldiers-trial.html)

Congress should pass the Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Act

By Mariah Philips, AIUSA Asia Advocacy Fellow

Aung Ko Htwe was only 13 years old when he was abducted and forced to serve in the Myanmar military. Two years later, he tried to escape. When a motorcyclist was killed in the attempt, Aung Ko Htwe was convicted of murder — a charge he denies — and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and, after serving 10 years, he was released in 2017.

However, instead of being allowed to make a fresh start, within one month of being freed, Aung Ko Htwe was back in detention. His crime? Recounting the details of his abduction and forced conscription in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Aung Ko Htwe was charged under Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which criminalizes the creation or distribution of information that may cause “fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.” This vaguely worded provisions frequently used to restrict freedom of expression in Myanmar. In the case of Aung Ko Htwe, he was prosecuted because of the attention he drew to the Myanmar military’s recruitment of child soldiers. He was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison — the maximum possible sentence. He was also sentenced to a further six months in prison for “contempt of court” after he criticized the presiding judge in the case. While he was acquitted of a further charge of “causing destruction of the whole or any part of the Union Seal”-after he allegedly stepped on a printed copy of Myanmar’s Constitution in protest against his sentence — an appeal against the acquittal has been filed in response. If the appeal is upheld and he is tried and convicted, he faces a further three years in prison.

But Aung Ko Htwe is not the only person targeted in Myanmar on politically-motivated grounds. Recent months have seen a worrying surge in arrests, prosecutions, and detentions. Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi has been detained since 12 April 2019 for criticizing the military’s role in politics on social media and is now on trial accused of making statements which would cause a solider or other member of the Myanmar military to “mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.” The charge carries up to two years in prison. Similarly, Rakhine journalist Aung Marm Oo is hiding after learning — through the media — that he faces criminal charges under Myanmar’s notorious Unlawful Associations Act. The law has often been used to target members of ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s conflict affected areas.

These incidences are alarming and far too common. When the NLD-led government came to power, there were high hopes that the new administration — headed by Aung San Suu Kyi — would break the cycle of politically motivated arrest and detention. While there were early positive moves, the released of scores of prisoners of conscience and the repeal of some repressive laws, reforms have stalled. Meanwhile, new cases of arrest and detention began to emerge. This is in large part because the legal framework, which allows authorities to criminalize peaceful activists, remains in place; laws such as the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act, the 1923 Official Secrets Act, The 2013 Telecommunications Act, the Peaceful Assembly and peaceful Procession Act, and numerous provisions in Myanmar’s Penal Code. As long as these provisions remain on the books, human rights defenders, peaceful activists, and others remain at risk and freedom of expression in Myanmar under threat. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that Congress swiftly passes H.R. 2327 and S. 2069, the House and Senate versions of the Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Act. Introduced by Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) on the House side and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Marsh Blackburn (R-TN) on the Senate side, the bill focuses specifically on freeing prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, and encouraging the repeal or amendment of all laws that allow such detainments. In addition, the bill stresses the importance that Myanmar law reflect international human rights standards more broadly. By mandating that the Secretary of State work with local civil society organizations that operate on the ground to secure the release of these prisoners of conscience, Congress would convey in unequivocal terms the importance of decriminalizing peaceful political expression.

With the 2020 elections fast approaching, time is running out for the Myanmar authorities to repeal many of the harmful laws that allow the detention of prisoners of conscience to continue. Change is possible, but it requires political will, and — crucially — consistent pressure. Congress must seize the opportunity to force this issue, to send a clear message to the government of Myanmar that these repressive laws are indefensible, and that the U.S. government will work to free all prisoners of conscience in the country.

We must not turn a blind eye to Myanmar’s blatant disregard for freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Amnesty International urges Congress to pass this critical bill and end this harmful pattern once and for all.

The future of Aung Ko Htwe and others like him depend on it.

Since this article was written (on August 25, 2019), Aung Ko Htwe walked free on September 6, 2019 after completing the two years of his sentence.

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