On July 1, 2015, four students from Mandalay’s Yadanabon University were arrested for their alleged involvement in a graffiti campaign, in which messages critical of the government and a new national education law were spray painted onto university walls. After two months, the students remain in jail, and face years in prison if convicted.
The four students, Naing Ye Wai, Gist Too, Aung San Oo and Nyan Lin Htet, are members of the executive committee of Mandalay District Students Union, and of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), an organization that has led much of the activism against the new education law, which opponents have argued violates academic freedom. The students were reportedly accused of spray painting messages on university walls including “We don’t want the National Education Law” and “Release students in Tharyarwady prison immediately,” referring to students who remained in jail following confrontations with police in the city of Letpadan in early 2015 (see reports here, here and here). The students are reportedly each charged with: unlawful assembly under Penal Code Section 143, which carries a potential sentence of six months; rioting under Penal Code Section 147, which carries a potential sentence of two years; and causing fear or public alarm under Penal Code Section 505(b), which carries a potential sentence of two years.
On August 21, the students made an application for bail with the Ama Ra Pu Ra Township Court (Mandalay division), requesting that they be released from September 17-29, in order to be allowed to sit for exams. The request was denied. The following day the students reportedly began a hunger strike, and were then each transferred to solitary confinement, where they remain as of this report.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about imprisonment and prosecution of students in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as academic freedom — conduct which is protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While state authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order and protecting property, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, and comply with internationally recognized standards of free expression and association and academic freedom, as well as due process and fair trial.