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Burma: Imprisonment of Arakan Human Rights Defenders Exposes Government’s Continued Complicity in Corporate Human Rights Abuses

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More Human Rights Defenders Imprisoned Despite Pledge to Free All Political Prisoners

(Bangkok, 30 September 2013) – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a regional human rights group representing 47 member organizations in 16 countries across Asia, including Burma, slammed the Burma government for the conviction of ten individuals to three months in prison on 26 September 2013, in relation to a demonstration against the Shwe Gas Project in Arakan State – the latest in a series of recent cases of criminalization of human rights defenders under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. The regional human rights group called for the repeal of all provisions in the law that are in contravention of international human rights norms and standards, and for the release of the ten.

The Chinese-backed Shwe Gas Project is one of Burma’s largest extractive industry developments, transporting natural gas and crude oil to southwest China. The pipeline project passes through twenty townships across Burma and has thus far resulted in a long list of human rights abuses, including forced labour, forced eviction and land confiscation, and arbitrary taxation.

The Shwe Gas Project is featured as one of the case studies in FORUM-ASIA’s latest report, Corporate Accountability in ASEAN: A Human Rights-Based Approach, which will be launched in Jakarta later this week. The report documents numerous cases of corporate human rights violations, and provides a detailed list of recommendations, including for both governments and businesses to adhere to international human rights norms and standards in the conduct of business activities and ensure access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to redress and remedy; as well as for governments to stop the criminalization of human rights defenders’ legitimate work in the context of monitoring business activities and advocating for corporate accountability.

“The case of the Shwe Gas Project highlights the numerous human rights violations that have been caused by business activities, often with the complicity of the government, which has become endemic in Burma,” said Evelyn Serrano, FORUM-ASIA’s Executive Director.

On 18 April 2013, over 400 villagers in Maday Island, Arakan State, marched to the office of the China National Petroleum Corporation, demanding for the project to be halted. Ten individuals were detained, and subsequently charged and convicted for violating Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires a permit to be obtained from the authorities for any public assembly. The villagers had previously been denied a permit twice – in December 2012 and in March 2013 – on the purported grounds that a state of emergency had been declared under Article 144 of the Penal Code following ethno-religious clashes in other parts of Arakan State, despite the fact that there had been no incidence of violence in Maday Island.

FORUM-ASIA has highlighted the charges against the ten Shwe Gas protestors on other occasions in the past year, including at the UN Human Rights Council in May and most recently in September.

“We are deeply concerned about the emerging trend of criminalization of human rights defenders working on issues relating to land disputes caused by business activities in Burma, and this has been underscored by the latest conviction of the ten Shwe Gas protestors under the highly restrictive Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law,” said Serrano.

Previously, on 29 August 2013, woman human rights defender Naw Ohn Hla was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment under Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, and faces further charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law along with nine others, for protesting without a permit in relation to land disputes arising from the copper mine project in Letpadaung. In July, Ko Aung Soe was sentenced to prison terms of 11 years and 6 months while two others were given prison terms of 2 years and 6 months after being detained incommunicado, also in relation to protests against the Letpadaung copper mine. This is despite the pledge made by President Thein Sein to free all political prisoners in the country by the end of this year.

“The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and the Penal Code, two laws that are increasingly being selectively used by the Burma government to criminalize the legitimate work of human rights defenders, clearly contain numerous restrictive provisions that contravene international human rights norms and standards. The Burma government must immediately initiate a process to repeal all restrictive provisions in these two laws, and release all individuals detained and imprisoned under these laws, in line with its pledge to free all political prisoners,” stressed Serrano.

For inquiries, please contact: John Liu, East Asia Programme Officer, FORUM-ASIA, at +66802828610 or [email protected].

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