When he was released from prison in January 2012 after serving nearly three years of a politically motivated sentence, Tin Htut Paing – only 21 years old at the time – had reason to be optimistic that his country was changing for the better. But in spite of the profound political changes that have occurred in Myanmar over the past few years, he’s being hunted by the authorities once again for his political work – and feels that it’s only a matter of time before he’s arrested.
A leader of Generation Youth – a loosely organized advocacy organization dominated by activists in their early twenties – Tin Htut Paing works to promote the fundamental rights and democracy denied to the people of Myanmar during 50 years of direct military rule. When he heard that a group of recently laid-off factory workers were staging a sit-in in the shadow of Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon, he raced over as quickly as he could, and lectured them on tactics for negotiating with the owner and the authorities. “Before the demonstrations started, I had already given advice and suggestions to the workers,” he told me. “When I heard they were protesting at Sule, I went down to encourage them to not give up.”
With the activists’ support, the workers’ demonstration succeeded: the owner increased their severance package, offered to help them find new jobs, and they went home the following morning. But Tin Htut Paing wasn’t so lucky. Narrowly avoiding arrest at the demonstration, he’s been in hiding ever since. “After [the demonstration], the police came to my house at midnight, looking for me,” he said. “Today, the police came to my house again, and I heard that I would have to face trial.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Once an international pariah rivaling North Korea for notoriety, Myanmar’s government has taken unprecedented steps to come out of the cold in recent years. Rapid political and economic reforms by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government have been rewarded in-kind by the West, which lifted most trade sanctions this year. But where civil society comes into conflict with powerful economic interests – both foreign and domestic – the narrative of Myanmar’s miraculous opening to the outside world becomes decidedly murky.
After being outlawed outright for decades, the government legalized public demonstrations in December 2011, with the passing of the Right to Peaceful Procession and Assembly Act. While it grants a modicum of freedom – in theory – where there was none before, the Assembly Act puts onerous restrictions on freedom of assembly, requiring would-be protestors to apply for permission to demonstrate five days in advance.
Local police have the right to reject applications if they meet vaguely defined criteria of threatening the “security of the State, rule of law, community’s peace and tranquility, and public morality.” In practice, few demonstrations receive an official stamp of approval, and activists rarely bother to apply. Section 18 of the Assembly Act threatens participants in unauthorized protests with “a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment or a maximum fine of thirty thousand kyat (US$31) or both.” It’s become the government’s most-used weapon against civil society over the past year. Facing at least two charges under Section 18, Tin Htut Paing is trying to avoid the dragnet.
In 2007, at the age of 17, Tin Htut Paing took to the streets of Rangoon to hand out leaflets during the “Saffron Revolution,” a monk-led uprising against military rule and the largest anti‐government protests Myanmar had seen in 20 years. When the authorities began to round up activists, he fled to the border with Thailand, where he spent almost two years studying politics and activism.