On September 29, 2020, it was reported that Burmese police had arrested fourteen university students for their peaceful participation in protest activities.
The students, many of whom are members of a group known as the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU), allegedly participated in various protest activities in response to an ongoing armed conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Reports by news outlets and human rights groups indicate that the protests were generally peaceful.
Starting in mid-September, police carried out the arrests on campuses and in raids on their homes. At least six of the students were reportedly arrested for allegedly distributing leaflets and other print materials containing anti-war and pro-democracy slogans.
The students were charged under the penal code, Myanmar’s law on peaceful assemblies, and the Natural Disaster Management Act. The charges carry sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment and fines. At the time the arrests were reported, ABSFU claimed that as many as thirty other students went into hiding to avoid arrest.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrests of students for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting the rights to freedom of expression, so long as they are nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, arrests intended to restrict or retaliate against student expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.