The Blog

Myanmar: Punishing Dissent

As the world's magnifying glass increasingly hones in on this once obscure country, it is likely that scrutiny of its human rights record will only intensify.

Just weeks before the election Myanmar police have arrested the student activist, Kyaw Ko Ko.

YANGON, MYANMAR: On 8 November, Myanmar will hold its first democratic general election. The National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is poised to take the majority of the 75% seats available. Under the current constitution, the other 25% are reserved for the military.

The election is by no means expected to be a perfect example of democracy. Instead, it is billed as a step in the right direction, following decades of isolationism and military rule.

Amid the bedlam of the country's first election is the drama of Kyaw Ko Ko, 34, the once fugitive and head of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions - a student body with a long history of political dissent and once an armed force.

Kyaw Ko Ko roused the State when he played a leading role in orchestrating a student-led movement against the National Education Law, which passed through Myanmar's Hluttaw (Parliament) in 2014.

Opponents to the Act argue it allowed the government to break up student unions, exert heavy influence over the curriculum and ban students from taking part in political activities.

In March 2015, police cracked down on an otherwise peaceful protest in Letpadan, a town roughly 90 miles north of Yangon. The police reportedly beat the protestors and arrested roughly 100. Some 60 remain in prison today.

Kyaw Ko Ko was in Yangon at the time, leading a different protest. When the police arrived, he fled and managed to evade arrest for more than six months.

On 29 October, less than two weeks before the election, Kyaw Ko Ko was detained by plain clothed officers near San Pya market in Thingangkun Township. Although now believed to be in police custody, his whereabouts remain unknown.

This is another blow to the international supporters of Myanmar, which includes the governments of the United States, Great Britain, Japan and Australia.

Since the Burmese government announced its willingness to transition to democracy in 2011, the foreign powers have offered political support, lifted trade sanctions and returned the flow of aid.

The international community has been tolerant of Myanmar's checkered human rights record, believing that it is preferable to engage with the government and support it while it transitions. There are, however, signs that their lenience is beginning to wane.

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, recently sent one of his closest aides, Ben Rhodes, to the country. He forcefully re-iterated the US' position that the election must "reflect the will of the people", amid accusations and fears of intimidation and vote rigging.

Some have argued that international efforts in Myanmar relaxed too much pressure too soon. This reduced the motivation of the military-backed government to introduce deeper and more fundamental reforms.

As the world's magnifying glass increasingly hones in on this once obscure country, it is likely that scrutiny of its human rights record will only intensify.

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