Myanmar has a proud history of peaceful protests. Exercising the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly in the face of state violence has been a crucial part of politics and civil resistance since independence. Voicing public opinion about the peace process is especially important now, as the Panglong Conference has been rescheduled after a months-long delay.
Listening to the people’s voices speaking out against oppression is a core duty of a democratically-elected government. With its origins in the 1988 Uprising, the National League for Democracy must understand well the importance of peaceful assembly. As two of the youth leaders of recent peaceful protests in Myitkyina and Yangon, we hoped that when we led peaceful protests in April and May 2018 we would be met with a more supportive response. However, we were sorely disappointed.
We and 45 others were charged with criminal offences for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies, despite our best efforts to follow the law. Flaws in the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL) allowed police to be overly restrictive and biased. These flaws must be addressed so that peaceful assembly can flourish and contribute to the establishment of democracy in Myanmar. Furthermore, we were shocked by the violent actions of ultra-nationalist counter-protesters in Yangon and on social media, and the failure or unwillingness of the police to take immediate and transparent action against them.
Due to the urgent humanitarian situation in Kachin State and elsewhere, and the mounting delays and failures in the peace process, we as young citizens felt we had to act. In April and May, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State were trapped in the forest, between their villages – which were occupied by abusive Myanmar military troops – and relative safety in nearby towns. Thousands of IDPs in Kachin State are still without much-needed humanitarian aid due to the Myanmar military’s restrictions on humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas. IDPs who have made it to safety outside the conflict area face reductions in aid and military and government pressure to close down IDP camps and are not even recognized as IDPs. Meanwhile, humanitarian and rights-based organizations have documented IDPs and other civilians being used as porters, human shields and minesweepers; and tortured, raped and killed by the Myanmar military.
The outrage was growing and we could not get the Government to act to save the trapped IDPs effectively through other methods, so we and other young people decided to hold peaceful assemblies to demand the rescue of trapped IDPs, provision of humanitarian aid, and an urgent end to the conflict. Protests in Myitkyina were followed by protests in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities throughout Myanmar, giving us hope that we were not alone trying to raise our voices on behalf of trapped IDPs and the conflict-affected people of Myanmar.
After our peaceful protests, we and many of our colleagues were charged with violations of the PAPPL. These charges demonstrate that, despite changes made to the law in 2016, the right to peaceful assembly is still not respected and guaranteed in Myanmar. The law contains many loopholes and arbitrary restrictions that make even our diligent attempts to follow the law impossible in the face of local authorities, and ultimately the military determined to prevent us from assembling and speaking out.
Since 2011, civil society organizations have been organizing events and public actions against ongoing civil war. In Yangon, the Public Peace Movement was initiated in 2017 as an immediate and urgent response to inadequate actions by the ruling government to address the civil war. We organized a public march in 2017 with around 500 participants, demanding that the military stop offensives and requesting the Government to provide access for humanitarian aid in conflict areas. In Kachin State, civil society has organized annual anti-war activities on the anniversaries of the renewed conflict and used many other tactics to seek an end to conflict and abuse. Many people have been charged across the country due to anti-war action.
After 7 years of resumed civil war in Kachin State and on-going conflicts in other ethnic areas of Myanmar, we are tired of war. Our future remains uncertain, and Myanmar is lagging behind the world in terms of development. We wish to get out of poverty and conflict. The decades-long civil war affects everyone in Myanmar, and it is everyone’s duty to try to stop it and work towards justice and peace. We truly believe it is time to stop charging peaceful protestors, harshly beating unarmed civilians, arbitrarily arresting peaceful activists, and repressing freedom of expression.
As young women in Myanmar, no one expects us to be leaders. We have been fighting discrimination and stereotypes for our whole lives, but we have continued with our work towards peace, democracy and gender and ethnic equality in Myanmar. When we, along with our colleagues, led peaceful protests, many people tried to stop us. Police ridiculed and threatened us. Ultra-nationalists and military supporters on Facebook sent threatening messages and spread vulgar rumours about us. We continued because we feel we have a duty to make this country a better place for all who live in it. We hope that the Myanmar Government will change course and be supportive of our efforts, instead of restricting our rights.