Burma: Violent attacks on rights activists

News and Press Release
Originally published
Government Militias Beat and Harass Opponents

(London, April 24, 2007) - The Burmese military government should stop attacks against political and human rights activists by its civilian supporters, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks.

At around midday on April 18, a group of approximately 100 men carrying clubs and other homemade weapons attacked and beat Myint Naing and Maung Maung Lay, members of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, at Oakpon village in Hinthada Township, 100 kilometers northwest of Rangoon. Both men were admitted to hospital in Rangoon with head injuries, and one remains in serious condition. The attacks were carried out by members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a social welfare movement formed and supported by Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The local secretary of the USDA, U Nyunt Oo, was reportedly present at the incident and coordinated the attack.

"This brutal attack against grassroots human rights defenders is the latest in a series of assaults on peaceful political activities in Burma," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should order its thugs to stop harassing people for promoting human rights."

On April 22, plainclothes police officers arrested several people who were staging a demonstration against deteriorating living standards and rising inflation. Some of the protestors had staged a similar demonstration in downtown Rangoon in late February and had been arrested and detained for several days.

In contrast, demonstrations of the USDA youth wing outside the US and British embassies in Rangoon in late January 2007, were permitted by the authorities.

The USDA was involved in attacks against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Rangoon in 1997, and implicated in killings during the attack on the NLD at Depayin in Upper Burma on May 30, 2003. Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo, another NLD leader, have remained under house arrest since that attack. The USDA has been at the forefront in harassing NLD supporters across the country, pressuring their members to resign and keep their offices closed. The USDA has also harassed, intimidated and threatened groups calling for peaceful dialogue and reform, such as the 88 Students Generation led by former political prisoners Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who have recently called for an end to the "suspicion, hatred, intimidation and fear" perpetrated by the SPDC and their allies.

The USDA now has a reported 23 million members nationwide. Public servants, local officials and even university students have been coerced into joining the organization. Legally registered as a social welfare organization, the USDA is designed to skirt rules banning public officials from being members of political parties. Its ideology and aims mirror those of the military government, and its national patron is President Than Shwe, while its secretary-general is Major General U Htay Oo, the SPDC Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation.

Many observers believe the SPDC plans to have the USDA lead a civilian government that will act as a front for the military when the long-running National Convention to write a new constitution concludes. In the past two years, the USDA has been promoted by the SPDC as a local partner for international development agencies and the United Nations. In December 2005 the USDA demanded that some of its members accompany the International Committee of the Red Cross during visits to political prisoners, which have been suspended since that time.

"The routine use of violence by the USDA represents the true face of an organization being groomed to take power in Burma as a surrogate for the military," Adams said. "This makes it hard for anyone in the international community to take them seriously as a partner for development."

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that abuses are being committed by civilian organizations that have received paramilitary training from the military in the past several years under the guise of protecting the nation from domestic threats and as part of the government's "people's militia strategy" to defend Burma against international military intervention. This has included military training for security details within the USDA and for members of the Myanmar Fire Brigade and Myanmar Red Cross. On March 20, 2007 40-year-old Thet Naing Oo was beaten to death by municipal authorities and local Fire Brigade officials after a domestic dispute at a market in Rangoon.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate the incident at Hinthada and the killing of Thet Naing Oo and to make a public commitment to protect peaceful political activists throughout the country.

"This is the division of labor for repression in Burma," Adams said. "In the countryside the military attacks civilians, burns villages and uses people as slave labor, while in the cities government-backed groups beat opponents and force thousands to attend staged mass rallies in a fake display of loyalty to Burma's ruling council."

For more information, please contact:

In London, Brad Adams (English): +44-79-0872-8333 (mobile)

In Washington, DC, Sophie Richardson (English, Mandarin): +1-202-612-4341; or +1-917-721-7473 (mobile)

In Thailand, David Mathieson (English): +66-87-176-2205 (mobile)

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