YANGON — A Myanmar student leader on trial over protests last year that were violently quashed by authorities called on Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government Monday to abolish laws repressing political activists. Hopes are growing that the first civilian-led government in decades can accelerate Myanmar’s economic and political rejuvenation after nearly half a century of brutal military rule. The country witnessed a historic transfer of power last week to an administration headed by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
But hundreds of political activists remain in jail.
Among them are some 40 students facing a variety of charges including unlawful assembly and rioting over education reform protests. These were violently broken up by baton-wielding police in the central town of Letpadan in March 2015. Another 30 or so students are on bail but facing similar charges.
“Now that there are many NLD MPs in the parliament … I want them to dissolve the laws that repress political activists,” student leader Phyo Phyo Aung, who has been in jail for more than a year, told AFP after a day of court hearings in Mayagone township, Yangon. She and her fellow student protesters could face up to ten years in jail if convicted. Some 120 former political prisoners now have seats in parliament. Most are NLD activists who, like Suu Kyi, spent decades campaigning against junta rule. Phyo Phyo Aung said she hoped they would now push through reforms to a series of laws on assembly and national security long used to target activists.
“They have more experience than us. They should abolish the laws under which they were sentenced by discussing with legal advocates. Then our country’s future will be better,” she said. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 90 political prisoners were in jail and more than 400 activists were facing trial as of February. The vast majority were arrested before last November’s landmark polls under the government of army-backed president Thein Sein, who oversaw remarkable reforms but still cracked down on critics. Suu Kyi and her party have yet to make any public policy statements on either the student trials or whether they plan to abolish the laws that once targeted so many of their own. An NLD spokesman declined to comment Monday.
The president has the right to pardon prisoners. But doing so might stoke the anger of the still powerful military, who retain control of the key home, border and defense ministries.