Jailed Land Rights Activists Are ‘Political Prisoners’, says Human Rights Watch

The arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of land rights activists across Burma forms a new wave of prisoners of conscience, Human Rights Watch has said in a report damning of the government.

The human rights organisation pointed to the arrest of a prominent land rights campaigner in Karen State as an example of a wider pattern of government persecution of its political opponents.

The arrest of U Saw Maung Gyi – a leader of the 88 Karen Generation Student organisations – in a night raid on August 7, was only the latest in a series of arrests using the country’s ‘draconian’ Unlawful Associations Act. U Saw Maung Gyi was arrested for allegedly assisting a “Karen insurgent” and if found guilty faces up to three years in prison.

“Burmese authorities should immediately stop using abusive laws on association and expression to halt the activities of land rights activists,” HRW said in a statement.

The Karen 88 Generation Student Organisation is a community-based organization pushing for democratic and human rights reform and accountability in Burma.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) records 138 political prisoners in Burma as of July this year with a further 452 awaiting charges, many under the Unlawful Association Act. In June alone 40 people were arrested in Karen State for violating laws on the use of land and peaceful assembly.

Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said Burma’s government was reneging on promises of reform.

“The Burmese authorities’ repeated use of oppressive laws against land rights activists is a heavy-handed attempt to silence them. These activists are forced to run a gauntlet of government intimidation, arrests – and now, trumped-up charges – just to try and help villagers stay on their land.”

Disputes over land rights and land confiscation have been a nationwide issue in Burma for decades, but has become more prominent since the latest government came into power in 2011 promising sweeping reforms.

Saw Johnny, a land rights advocate who was also the village chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party was killed by unknown gunmen in early July.

Thet Zin Oo, a senior police officer from the Eindu village police station in Hpa-an District, was reported as saying by DVB that, Saw Johnny, was shot dead outside his house in the early morning of July2 in the nearby village of Kawthinshu.

Police said Saw Johnny had been shot five times by the gunmen – many local people believe the killing is linked to Saw Johnny’s land rights activism.

“The arrests in Karen State mirror broader patterns elsewhere in Burma in which land activists are identified, targeted, and silenced,” Mr. Robertson said, “land activists are increasingly becoming Burma’s new political prisoners.”

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