Case History: Nilar Thein
On 8 April 2016, the Tharawaddy court dismissed the cases of 69 student human rights defenders and their supporters, who had been on trial since the police crackdown on peaceful student protests in 2015.
Nilar Thein is a human rights defender and a prominent leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group, a former students group formed to work for peace and to promote and protect civil society in Myanmar. Throughout many years of activism, she has fought for democracy, human rights and non-violent solutions to political conflict in Myanmar, including through the organisation of and participation in peaceful demonstrations. She is a former political prisoner who has spent more than 10 years in prison.
From 8 April 2016 to 12 April 2016, sixty-nine Burmese student human rights defenders, who had been detained since 2015, were freed. The student human rights defenders were on trial for over a year for protesting against the National Education Law. Dozens of other prominent Burmese human rights defenders were also freed following a presidential pardon.
On 11 April 2016, the Tharawaddy Court in Bago region released the General Secretary of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) Ms Phyoe Phyoe Aung together with her husband following the announcement of the presidential pardon. Charges against other leaders of the ABFSU, including Ms Po Po, Mr Kyaw Ko Ko and Mr Nanda Sitt Aung, were also withdrawn and they have been released. All Burma Federation of Student Unions is a student organisation that has been heavily involved in protests against the National Education Bill since November 2014, which they claim restricted academic freedom when enacted by Parliament on 30 September 2014. Members of the ABFSU insist on the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions.
Prominent activists, such as Ms Nilar Thein, a member of 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group, a former students group established to work for peace and to promote and protect civil society in Myanmar, and the labour and land rights defender and chairperson of Myanmar's Farmers Union, Ms Su Su Nway, have also been pardoned and released.
On 8 April 2016, the Tharawaddy Court dismissed the cases of sixty-nine student human rights defenders and their supporters, who had been on trial since the police crackdown on peaceful student protests in 2015. Most were accused of violating the Peaceful Assembly Law and faced charges under articles 143, 145, 147 and 505(b) of Myanmar's Penal Code, which concern unlawful assembly, rioting, incitement, and causing harm to a public servant. Some were facing charges from various townships where the education reform protests occurred and some were already serving their sentences when pardoned by the President. Their release took place over the course of several days.
The Presidential power to grant pardon is based on section 204(a) of the Constitution and article 401(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure that gives the President the authority to release prisoners at his or her discretion but stipulates that they can be returned to prison at any time to serve out the remainder of their sentence. Those human rights defenders who had been arrested but not yet convicted were pardoned based on section 494 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows cases to be dropped even after a trial has begun. The reliance on the mentioned articles allowed the President to bypass the otherwise required approval of his decision by the National Defence and Security Council, comprised primarily of representatives of the old military government, and therefore quickly implement his decision to grant pardon.
Front Line Defenders welcomes the decision of the government of Myanmar to grant pardon to student human rights defenders and other prominent human rights defenders in the country and dismiss their cases, as it believes that they were persecuted solely because of their peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights in Myanmar. Front Line Defenders, however, calls on the government of Myanmar to release those human rights defenders that remain in detention and to undertake measures to reform the country's repressive legal framework.
On 24 February 2016, the police arrested human rights defender Ms Nilar Thein at the headquarters of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group ('88 Generation Group') in Thingangyun township, Yangon, for having supported the student protests against the controversial education bill in 2015.
The police officers, from Bayinnaung Police Station in Yangon, were acting on the basis of an official arrest warrant. They brought the human rights defender to the Yangon Division’s Mayangone township Court for a preliminary hearing. Authorities charged her under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law for involvement in an unlawful protest in Yangon in March 2015, in support of students demanding amendments to the National Education Law. The charge carries a maximum sentence of six months' imprisonment. Nilar Thein has refused to pay any fines in connection with the charge and waived her right to appeal for bail, as she did not wish to comply with the court’s bail conditions. She is currently detained in Insein Prison in Yangon awaiting trial.
On 5 March 2015, Nilar Thein participated in a peaceful demonstration organised outside Sule Pagoda in Yangon, to support 100 students who had been marching from Mandalay to Yangon in opposition to the government’s controversial education reforms. The human rights defender and other protesters urged the authorities to restrain from resorting to violence against the students, yet both protests were violently dispersed by police and a mob of people in plain clothes hired by the government. Nilar Thein was arrested and released on the morning following the protest, along with several others. No official charges were brought against her.
Enacted by Parliament on 30 September 2014, the National Education Law was intended to reform Myanmar's education system. In practice, however, it outlawed independent student and teacher unions and limited academic freedoms by erasing ethnic languages, cultures and literatures from university syllabus.
Front Line is deeply concerned following reports of the arrest of human rights defender Nilar Thein, a human rights defender and pro-democracy activist leader in Burma, on 10 September 2008. Nilar Thein is a member of the '88 Generation Students group and has been in hiding from the authorities for over a year following the mass protests in Burma in August and September 2007.
On 10 September 2008, Nilar Thein was arrested in Yangon by Burmese security forces when she was on her way to visit her mother. Nilar Thein's mother and husband, Ant Bwe Kyaw and Kyaw Min Yu, were arrested along with 11 other anti-government demonstrators from the '88 Generation Students Group on 22 August 2007. Following their arrest Nilar Thein led a demonstration in Yangon calling for the release of all human rights defenders and also protesting against the fuel price increases which had been imposed by the State. Nilar Thein has been imprisoned twice before; she was detained for two months in 1991 and then spent nine years in jail from 1996-2005 for her political activities.
Nilar Thein is currently being held at the Aung Tha Pyay Detention Centre in Yangon, where Front Line believes she is at risk of torture and ill-treatment.
Front Line believes that Nilar Thein has been targeted as a result of her human rights activities, in particular her work to promote democracy and the rule of law in Burma. Front Line is concerned for the physical and psychological integrity of Nilar Thein, and reiterates its concern for all Burmese human rights defenders currently in detention.