13 December 2013 – 2 January 2014

Naw Ohn Hla (Civil Rights Defenders/Hkun Li).

In July, Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, announced his intention to free all of the country’s remaining political prisoners by the end of the year. On November 15, his government came 69 bodies closer to that goal, releasing roughly half of the 133 who remained behind bars.

One of those discharged was Naw Ohn Hla, a prominent activist best known for her work on land rights issues. But her release doesn’t fit neatly into idealised narratives about Myanmar’s rapid reforms. Flying in the face of the president’s July announcement, she was arrested on politically motivated grounds just this past August.

Naw Ohn Hla’s case and those of many of her colleagues betray an uncomfortable truth about the social contract in the “new” Myanmar – a country where, despite radically relaxed restrictions on civil liberties and unprecedented engagement with the outside world – deeply vested economic interests still trump the rights of a vast, underprivileged majority, and challenging the status quo will land you in hot water.

An ethnic Karen from Yangon’s Hmawbi Township, Naw Ohn Hla has been politically active since the ill-fated uprising against military rule in 1988. She was a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, until she was kicked out in 2005 for disagreements with the party line.

In 2004, she initiated a weekly prayer meeting at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda with a number of like-minded female activists. Every Tuesday, they gathered to pray for Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, a rare show of dissent in a country under strict military rule. In 2009, she began what would ultimately amount to two years in prison for her defiance; she was released in 2011 as part of one of the first presidential amnesties of political prisoners under Thein Sein’s tenure.

Following her release, she quickly became enmeshed in the world of activism once again, re-establishing herself as a leading campaigner for the rights of farmers kicked off their land. Under the former military regime, land grabs – the outright theft of vast expanses of land, both urban and rural, by the military and a small coterie of favoured businessmen – was exceedingly common. Despite reforms, land grabs have continued in the name of modernisation and development, with the needs and entitlements of those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder commonly ignored.

With Myanmar’s civil society granted newfound room to manoeuvre under Thein Sein’s reforms, a new wave of activism has emerged in ways that would have been unimaginable as little as two years ago. A string of opaque deals signed between the former military regime and foreign – mostly Chinese – companies are still in effect, and the vast human consequences of these projects have prompted those affected by them to take action. In September 2011, popular outrage against the China-backed Myitsone dam project at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River prompted the president to announce its suspension – the first major concession to public opinion under the newly civilianised regime. Although construction on the dam has ostensibly resumed, the appearance of a precedent had been set: the government listened to people’s wants and needs.

The second major test of the government’s apparent newfound tolerance for dissent came in the form of a months-long sit-in at the site of the Letpadaung copper mine near the central town of Monywa. A joint venture between Wanbao, an arm of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco, and the Myanmar military, the mine riled nationalist sentiment against perceived Chinese dominance over the country. It also served as an example of the injustices of life under a system still dominated by the economic players fostered by the old guard.

Popular outrage against the mine reached a crescendo last November, after a vicious police crackdown against a sit-in at the site left scores of protestors – including Buddhist monks – with severe burns from the use of phosphorous bombs. Naw Ohn Hla arrived on-site in August of 2012 along with a number of other activists from around the country, consulting with the displaced on how to mobilise with the eventual goal of shutting the mine down.

She was arrested on August 13 under section 18 of Myanmar’s controversial new protest law, passed in December 2011, which bans all demonstrations without prior permission from local authorities. Although she was never tried under section 18, she was ultimately convicted of “inciting unrest” under section 505b of Myanmar’s penal code and sentenced to two years in prison. She refused to enter the courtroom to hear her sentence read, claiming in a statement made through her lawyer that she did “not have faith in the judicial system.”

Myanmar’s government has quietly spent the last year pressuring civil society to stop signs of public discontent with projects deemed to be in the nation’s economic interest. It’s a strategy intended to create a chilling effect among activists without tarnishing international confidence in Myanmar’s top-down process of political and economic reforms. According to the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, 57 activists have been jailed for illegal demonstrations since the law was enacted, and at least 120 more are facing trial as of late November.

Work on the Letpadaung mine project hasn’t stopped despite the best efforts of activists, although they have been granted limited concessions, including the preservation of a monastery founded by Ledi Sayadaw, a venerated turn-of-the-20th century religious leader. To the dismay of the villagers and farmers affected by construction of the mine – as well as the general public – Aung San Suu Kyi gave her blessing to the project, likely in an attempt to curry favour with the establishment before nationwide polls in 2015.  But the Letpadaung saga is far from over, despite the government’s wishes: on November 14, police fired into a crowd of demonstrators, injuring seven.

After her release, Naw Ohn Hla returned once again to Letpadaung, resuming her role as an agitator and organizer exactly where she left off. How she will fare in 2014 – as Myanmar’s transition to semi-authoritarianism enters its fourth year – will serve as a good measure of the fairness of Myanmar’s reform process, and how responsive to public opinion Myanmar’s government feels it has to be.

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