Blasphemy Statutes Deny Human Rights

By Vani Sathisan, Sanhita Ambast and Reema Omer*

Blasphemy prosecutions are undermining the rule of law in Myanmar, India and Pakistan.

Hdtin Lin Oo

Writer and National League for Democracy information officer Htin Linn Oo (right) arrives at Chaung Oo Township Court in Sagaing Region on March 24. (Than Naing Soe/The Myanmar Times)

Blasphemy laws, such as section 295(a) of these countries’ penal codes, are inconsistent with human rights, including freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to liberty; and the right to equality before the law without discrimination. They are also applied arbitrarily, and accused people are often punished after unfair trials.

Section 295(a), enacted by colonial authorities in 1927 to curb communal tension, is the same in all three countries. It states that “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” shall be punished with imprisonment, a fine or both.

In a litany of recent cases, however, courts have convicted individuals in the absence of evidence of any deliberate and malicious intent to insult a religion. People have been severely punished simply because their acts of expression without such intent were perceived to be at odds with conservative interpretations of a religion. In Myanmar, at least, statements offensive to minority religions go unpunished. Continue reading

Silence on Investment Projects Is not the Answer

By Vani Sathisan and James Tager*

Letpadaung Copper MineOver the past three months, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has written to investors, developers, an international audit company and an environmental research institute to ask for the public disclosure of information relating to two of Myanmar’s largest economic development projects: the Dawei and Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The ICJ asked for information regarding environmental impact assessments (EIA), environmental management plans, and financial audit reports. The ICJ received no substantive responses.

The Dawei and Kyauk Phyu SEZs, two of Myanmar’s three proposed SEZs, are key elements of the country’s economic development plans. Transparency about the proposed projects is vital to ensure the protection of those whose rights will be affected by these massive investment projects. The Myanmar government, and interested investors, must remove the secrecy around these projects and provide the basic information requested regarding these projects.

In a country where businesses normally proceed without input from local communities, such secrecy has fostered serious human rights abuses, including land misappropriations, loss of livelihoods, serious environmental damage, and violent curtailments of freedom of expression and association. Continue reading

Letpadaung Convictions Taint the Legal System in Myanmar

by Vani Sathisan, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) International Legal Adviser, and Hayman Oo, ICJ Legal researcher, in Yangon

Letpadaung Copper Mine

Letpadaung Copper Mine, Myanmar

“They can imprison my body, but never my mind,” U Nay Myo Zin told us when we asked him whether he expected to be released, right before police led him into the Dagon Township courtroom for the verdict last week. The Court was teeming with police guards and supporters of the accused chanted slogans at the police, “not to kowtow to the military government” and that “the legal system lacks principle.” U Nay Myo Zin then added, “I will never surrender.”

He was one of the six human rights activists, besides Daw Naw Ohn Hla, Daw Sein Htwe, Ko Tin Htut Paing, Daw San San Win and U Than Swe, who were sentenced to four years and four months in prison with hard labour.

Their conviction, after a trial that didn’t meet basic standards of fairness and due process, highlights the tremendous pressure on the country’s judiciary at a time when Myanmar desperately needs to show improvements in the rule of law. Continue reading

Rights-Compliant Investment Needed to Keep SEZs Fair for All

by Vani Sathisan*

resident-thanlyin-township

A resident of Thanlyin township sits inside her home after officials posted an eviction notice in February 2013.

The village elder from Mutu, a small village near Dawei, in southern Myanmar, held out the 30 complaint letters residents had sent to Tanintharyi Region Chief Minister U Myat Ko.

The letters sought to highlight alleged human rights violations related to the development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and requested that adequate compensation be paid to those affected.

In Mutu and neighbouring villages, farmers and fishermen lamented the displacement of communities, loss of livelihoods and culture, and forced relocations due to the development of the Dawei SEZ and related infrastructure. Some told us they were being charged with trespassing on government land because they had refused to leave their homes after their land had been confiscated.

While the Dawei SEZ has been stalled for some time, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will visit Myanmar – his first official overseas trip – and is expected to hold talks aimed at reviving the project.

But the complaints emanating from Dawei are not isolated incidents. Amid the euphoria of the investment gold rush, Myanmar faces an epidemic of land disputes exacerbated by the development of SEZs. Continue reading