‘Midnight inspections’

01 April 2015
‘Midnight inspections’
Police arrest students and other protestors in Letpadan. Photo: Thet Ko

“I am safe,” said the long-awaited message that ended days of anxiety about the whereabouts of its sender.
The message was sent by a student in hiding after the violent crackdown at Letpadan on March 10 against protesters opposed to the National Education Law. Police have been searching towns and villages for the young activists who were able to flee Letpadan. The message came as a great relief to the student’s friends. They had been told he been able to flee the town but were anxious for confirmation.
More than 20 protesters went into hiding after the crackdown, say the representatives of student groups. The nights can be long for those in hiding to avoid arrest when any unusual noise sounds like a squad of police heading for the front door.
The authorities in Myanmar do not need an arrest warrant to enter a home. They can enter as they please. Their right to intrude into the privacy of a home is provided for under the controversial Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, that allows officials to check if any unreported guests are staying overnight. For the students in hiding and those providing them with a refuge, this means they could be arrested at any time.
For months, students throughout the country have been protesting against the National Education Law because they say it stifles academic freedom, does not grant universities enough autonomy, bans student and academic unions and was drafted without adequate consultation. Suggestions from student and other groups for amending the law were ignored when it was approved by parliament last September.
Frustrated by the government’s failure to respond to their concerns, students began protesting against the law soon after it was passed.
In November, the Action Committee for Democratic Education, comprising the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, the Confederation of Student Unions and the University Student Union, proposed four-party talks to discuss amendments to the law. It wanted the talks to be attended by representatives of the ACDE, the National Network for Education Reform, the government and members of parliament.
Frustrated by the government’s refusal to meet a January 16 deadline to agree to the talks, a group of students left Mandalay on January 20 to march to Yangon. Student groups began marching to Yangon from other towns.
A preliminary round of the four-party talks began on February 1 and the protests were paused on February 14 when the negotiations produced agreement on amendments to the law.
As time passed the students began doubting the willingness of the government to amend the law. Convinced that the process was being stalled, the students resumed protesting.
The students who had marched from Mandalay were by then in the small town of Letpadan, about 90 miles (140 kilometres) north of Yangon, where they had halted while the talks were under way on amending the law.
The mood soured in Letpadan on March 2 after the deployment of hundreds of riot police to prevent the students from continuing their march to the commercial capital. It worsened on March 5 when a demonstration in downtown Yangon to show solidarity with the marchers in Letpadan was violently dispersed by riot police assisted by vigilantes wearing red armbands.
Protest leaders in Letpadan had been negotiating with the authorities for permission to continue their march. They came to nothing and on March 10 the students ran out of patience and decided to continue their march to Yangon, with or without permission.
There were unruly scenes as students tried to break through the lines of riot police. As music blasted from loudspeakers, angry and tearful students persisted in futile attempts to push past riot police outnumbering them by hundreds. 
Tensions soared after prison vans were seen heading towards the protest site. A plastic water bottle was thrown at police and in the chaos it was not clear if it was thrown by a student . Then the order was given for the crackdown.
Batons raised, the riot police charged the students, beating them without restraint. One after another, students were arrested and taken away.
Some students fled to a nearby monastery but it was only minutes before it was surrounded by riot police.
“We were afraid they would beat us to death so we negotiated with them and said we would surrender,” one of the students said after being released.
The students left the monastery voluntarily and were lined up on the street. Then they were beaten. “They beat us and searched for the students who had been very active during the day. They took them out of the line and beat them, sometimes with ten officers at the same time,” the student said.
State-run media said that of the 127 people arrested at Letpadan, 65 were students and 62 were protest supporters, many of them residents of the town.
The few who managed to get away are in hiding, together with other students wanted for their alleged involvement in the protests, even though they were not in Letpadan the day of the crackdown.
Three members of the central working committee of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions were arrested overnight on March 12. Ko Thiha Win Tin, Ma Honey Oo and Ko Moe Htet Nay were staying at a friend’s house, when the controversial Wards and Village Administration Act was used to arrest them.
It is understood that the authorities had been tipped off earlier about the whereabouts of the students but waited until night so they could be arrested under the registration provisions of the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law.
Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights organisation, called on March 19 for the abolition of the law, that it says infringes on the rights to privacy, freedom of movement and freedom of association.
“The law limits people’s political activities and in some cases we believe this is by design,” said Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith.
The 2012 Ward or Village Tract Administration Law replaces two laws enacted more than a century ago, Fortify Rights said. Because the law is enforced through late-night visits to homes it is known as the “midnight inspections” law, it said.
The surge in inspections since the crackdown on student protesters is reminiscent of the decades of military dictatorship, when the earlier versions of the law were used to hunt down activists.
“Such laws should no longer exist in a democratic society and they should not be used as a weapon,” said Aung Nay Paing, a spokesperson for the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.
“The government has the intention to spy on democracy activists and students,” said Aung Nay Paing, who is among those wanted by the government for his alleged involvement in the protests.
“Given the military’s history of abuse in Myanmar, its effective authority over the guest registration process and household inspections is concerning,” Fortify Rights said in its report.
After being detained at their friend’s house, the three students arrested in Yangon were taken to Thayarwaddy Prison, where they are being held with those arrested at Letpadan until they go on trial. At the time of writing, none had been able to speak with their parents and requests from lawyers to meet the students have been denied.
This Article first appeared in the March 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

This Article first appeared in the March 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com
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