Hazel Galang, Amnesty's Southeast Asia Campaigner from London, is currently in the Philippines on this second anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. She reports:
I have come back from the massacre site a few hours ago. Personally, it was quite a harrowing experience to go to the site where a senseless politically-motivated killing of at least 57 people happened. I went with some civil society representatives and we had to go with some military escorts as the security threat was a bit high. Two bombs were found in the massacre site and the dirt road that lead to it this morning. They were detonated by the soldiers. Another grenade was confiscated in a public market close to the site.
Fifty-seven people, 32 of them jouralists, were killed in the Maguindanao massacre on November 23, 2009. The victims were brutally killed and dumped in a mass grave on a hillside in the town of Ampatuan in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao.
Those killed were on their way to witness the filing of candidacy for a local politician when they were stopped by an estimated 100 armed men. Leaders of the powerful Ampatuan clan have been charged in connection with the killings but no prosecutions have been concluded.
Amnesty International groups around the world have held public events and memorials commemorating the second anniversary of the massacre. In the US, Philippine Country Specialist Nerve Macaspac organized a program at the San Francisco Public Library on the 22nd.
Audryn Karma with Eben Kirksey at the White House, 11.12.11
What an amazing few days it's been for the Filep Karma case. As I write, President Obama is in Bali, Indonesia, and surely has a briefcase full of calls for the immediate release of Filep. The UN has just responded to a petition filed by Freedom Now which states: "[the] United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued its opinion that the Government of Indonesia is in violation of international law by detaining Filep Karma." In August, 26 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) demanding Filep's immediate and unconditional release. And in anticipation of Obama's visit, Indonesian newspapers have been filled with stories about the possible human rights issues that he might raise with SBY. Amnesty's Indonesia researcher in London, Josef Benedict, commented on Obama's visit in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald.
But there's more! Into this perfect storm steps the intrepid Audryn Karma, Filep's oldest daughter. Audryn made her first trip outside Indonesia to attend Amnesty's Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference. She also was able to visit with Members of Congress and their staff, including a major supporter of Papuan human rights initiatives, Representative Eni Faleomavaega (American Samoa), and with officials at the State Department.
Amnesty activists first met Audryn at the amazing and energetic White House rally on Saturday. Four bus-loads of attendees left the conference and headed for the rally around noon. In an ever-widening circle of people at Lafayette Park, Audryn heard cries of "Free Filep Karma!" She was called to the bullhorn and introduced as Filep's daughter, to the cries and applause of the crowd. Although she worried about her English, Audryn didn't stumble as she explained that she had come to ask for her father's freedom.
Sophal was 11 years old when, in 1990, her family bought a plot of land in Dey Krahorm, built a house and moved in. In the years that followed, the village and Phnom Penh changed dramatically around her. The Paris Agreements, aimed at ending decades of internal conflict, were signed in 1991 and soon afterwards the city saw an influx of foreigners working for the UN and a myriad of development organizations. The city centre experienced rapid urbanization, as Cambodians sought to be a part of the new era of economic development. Sophal grew up feeling optimistic about life and had dreams of becoming a professional seamstress. When she was old enough she began to run a small business as a manicurist and tailor from her home, which meant that people living around the village often dropped by. She married a young man from the village, Sokha. By the mid-2000's, Dey Krahorm was under threat. The Municipality of Phnom Penh, in conjunction with companies, was systematically razing old housing communities around the Tonle Bassac area to make way for luxurious buildings. The families who had settled or bought land in Dey Krahorm and the surrounding villages were sitting on some of the most valuable real estate in Phnom Penh. As land prices rose exponentially, businesspeople and government officials set their sights on these "untoward" villages. No formal land titles had been issued to the approximately 800 households in Dey Krahorm, although many had been recognized through documentation issued by local authorities over the years. Sophal and her husband eventually learned that a company called 7NG had been granted title to their house in December 2006. In 2005, 7NG had already begun its overtures to community leaders in Dey Krahorm to swap the land for houses build on cheap property at Damnak Trayoung, on the outskirts of the city. Residents were pressured to either move to a flat in Damnak Trayoung or agree to an alternative offer of US $8,000 in compensation. Though hundreds of the 800 original families dismantled their houses and left, Sophal's family did not agree. She knew that she would have lost all the employment connected to her house, and that there would be no income. For those families like Sophal's that made the decision to reject the offer, the company threats turned into violence. "Sometimes the company came at night," recalls Sophal. "They came at night to pull down the houses...they handcuffed people, and broke their heads...people wearing military boots kicked people. I saw this directly."
In November of 2010 Myanmar held its first national
elections since 1989 and a few days later released National League for
Democracy General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The State Peace and Development Council
(SPDC) made up of eighteen generals and admirals that had ruled the country
since 1988 was dissolved and its Chairman Senior General Than Shwe officially
retired. The new parliament was
inaugurated in March of this year and it elected a former army general Thein
Sein president. The country’s name was changed from the Union of Myanmar to the
Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the national flag was replaced with a new
one. More interesting developments
The UN Rapporteur for
Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, was allowed to visit and
interview some political prisoners and meet with opposition figures in
August. President Thein Sein met
with Aung San Suu Kyi, something that would have been unimaginable under the
SPDC. Daily propaganda slogans
against “internal and external destructive elements’ including the BBC and
Voice of America began to disappear from the government-controlled news media.
The new U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma (the U.S.
still officially calls the country by its old name) Derrick Mitchell has travelled
to Naypyitaw to meet with officials and opposition leaders three times in the
last few months. Assistant Secretary
of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner jointed Mitchell
on the last trip in early November.
The government has announced an “end to censorship” including the
unblocking of sensitive websites that were previously prohibited. A process
leading to the legalization of Aung San Suu Kyi’s banned political party, the
National League for Democracy, seems to be underway. A National Human Rights
Commission has been set up.
Understandably these developments have provoked new feelings
of optimism in many quarters. But, as one commentator recently wrote most of that
optimism seems to be coming from outside Myanmar.
Some of those optimists expected that in line with its
“reform” program Myanmar would free all its political prisoners when it
announced an amnesty in October. But only a little over 200 of the approximate
2,100 political prisoners were released.
Political prisoners continue to suffer under appalling
prison conditions including beatings, overcrowding and extremely substandard
At the same time there has been no let up in the military’s
operations against the Kachin, Karen and other ethnic armed groups which have
always been accompanied by gross human rights violations against civilians in
the contested areas.
When 15 political prisoners in Insein Prison near Yangon commenced
a hunger strike on October 26 to protest denial of the same reductions in
sentences that were granted to criminal prisoners, the reaction of the
government was to torture them by denying them drinking water and placing eight
of them in small filthy cells designed to hold dogs.
One might argue that the government of Myanmar cannot
completely reform itself overnight if indeed that is its plan. But how long
does it take to stop arresting political prisoners? How long does it take to stop torturing people? How long does it take to transfer the
monk U Gambira to a hospital where he can be treated for complications of
torture injuries sustained in April 2009? How long does it take to turn a key
in a cell door? And how long does
it take the army to stop the killings and rape of civilians in its
Maybe when a few of those things start happening the real
optimism can begin.
Amnesty International has issued its second Urgent Action this week for gross human rights abuses in Myanmar (find the first on the 11.01.11 posting of this blog). Fifteen political prisoners, currently on hunger strike in Insein prison in Myanmar, are reportedly being tortured or otherwise ill-treated. According to sources in Myanmar, they have been denied drinking water, and eight of the prisoners have been held in cells designed to hold dogs. The dog cells measure about 3m in length, and just over 2m wide. They are windowless and often have poor ventilation. There is generally no proper sanitation, no bed and no mats on the floor. By the morning of 1 November it was reported that two of the hunger strikers had been sent to hospital. The hunger strikers have also been denied visits from their families and receipt of parcels from relatives, which may include medicine, food, or letters. The political prisoners, all men, started a hunger strike at Insein prison on 26 October. The strike is in protest that political prisoners in Myanmar are commonly denied the reductions in their sentences which are allowed to criminal convicts. Please take part in this Urgent Action as soon as possible.
Mai Part one of a five part series* Mai was five months pregnant in October 2009 when she was arrested and thrown in jail. She had travelled more than 250km from her homeland in the remote north-west province of Oddar Meanchey to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, to ask prime Minister Hun Sen to help her community get its land back. For her efforts, she was accused of violating the Forestry Law and dumped behind bars. A few days earlier Mai had watched helplessly as her home and 118 other houses in her village, Bos, were bulldozed and burned to the ground by a force of some 150 police, military police, forestry administration officials and other individuals villagers believed to be company workers. In 2008, Angkor Sugar Company was granted a concession over 6,500 hectares encompassing Mai's village. Both the company and the authorities failed to give families living in the area adequate information about the concessions or the status of their rights to their housing and farmland. Families were not consulted about the company's plans or about how they would be affected Ignoring the protests of local residents company workers reportedly began clearing the villagers' rice fields, including Mai's, to plant sugar cane soon after the concession was granted. Mai explains that the workers kept the rice crop for themselves, which left Mai and her community without the staple food that the depended on to sustain them through the year ahead. The first demolition of village housing occurred in April 2008 and was followed by a campaign of threats and intimidation designed to get the remaining families to leave. Residents said that they were pressured to accept alternative land plots assigned to them by the authorities. If the didn't, they were told they would receive nothing and be put under criminal investigation. Mai was arrested in Phnom Penh after she attempted to flee from police during the night. Her husband escaped, and she has not heard from him since that night. She has heard that he may be in Thailand, but no one can confirm his whereabouts. She spent the next eight months behind bars, enduring a difficult pregnancy and birth, and struggled to nourish her newborn son despite a diet of dirty and nearly inedible rice. When Mai was brought before a judge, she was told that she would be released if she signed an agreement to withdraw all claims to her land in Bos village and accepted replacement land. Mai signed the agreement and travelled back to Oddar Meanchey. She never received the promised plot of land. Hoy Mai spoke to Amnesty International on 17 March 2011.
*The full report will be available later this month.
Remember all the joyous emails and postings just a few weeks ago as we learned that Myanmar seemed to begin a process of releasing political prisoners? The word evidently has not reached Kale prison, in northern Myanmar. U Gambira has been held there in solitary confinement since May 2009. Reports from former prisoners who were able to visit him report that he has difficulty speaking, and bears visible scars and marks on his hands, arms and body. He suffers from frequent headaches that cause him to cry out in pain.
Amnesty International calls for U Gambira to be admitted to hospital immediately for a full and independent medical examination, and for him to be given all necessary treatment. Please take part in this Urgent Action as soon as possible.
U Gambira is believed to have been tortured in April 2009 when he was held in Hkamti prison. It is believed that he was tortured after requesting permission to exercise. Prison guards shackled him and handcuffed him to a chair, stuffed a cloth in his mouth, and placed a black cloth bag over his head. They proceeded to beat him on the head with a stick. U Gambira is reported to have been left handcuffed to the chair for extended periods during which time he was spoon-fed by the guards.
U Gambira is serving a 68-year sentence following his arrest in November 2007. He was sentenced under several different, and vague, laws for his roles in anti-government demonstrations in August and September of 2007.