In most countries teachers with talent and commitment are valued; in Burma some are jailed.
U Aung Pe is one. Last month he walked out of the central prison, and kept going all the way back to his town 17 miles away. After three years he needed fresh air, he told a journalist by phone.
Aung Pe’s crime was to have taught underprivileged children without a license. In fact he had had one, but couldn’t get it renewed as he didn’t get along with the local education board. He says that its officials had kept asking for extra payments, which he refused, pointing out that he had rented a room at his own expense and was tutoring orphans and poor students for free.
He was arrested in February 2005, and charged under a 1984 law on tuition, which stipulates prison terms for offences such obtaining a permit improperly, unauthorized advertising, and holding private lessons inside school premises. He was convicted in August.
But the court’s verdict betrays the real reason that Aung Pe was put behind bars; a reason not covered by the tuition law at all.
On a national holiday, Aung Pe had lectured his students on Aung San, and led them in paying respects to the independence martyr. What is more, he had “hung a t-shirt bearing the image of Aung San Suu Kyi” in his classroom, the judge stated in finding him guilty.
Aung Pe’s lawyer appealed to the Supreme Court. He pointed out that lessons on the national hero are a normal part of the school curriculum, and that the portrait of his Nobel Prize-winning daughter is not prohibited from public display, but to no avail. His client spent his 50th birthday locked up.
Before Aung Pe’s time was over, another dedicated and popular tutor was given the same treatment.
Min Min, a 30-year-old living in the central town of Pyay, had previously taught at a room alongside his house, but had closed up and gone to instruct at a center nearby.
In July 2007, he made the mistake of having a private talk on human rights in his old classroom. The police accused him of reopening lessons there without approval.
Hundreds of students and residents came to lend support at the trial and testify on his behalf. But the judge said that his evidence was not “firm” enough to prove his innocence, and away he went too.
Ironically, Min Min was jailed on the same day that his government was agreeing to a new charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The charter includes an article to establish a regional human rights body ostensibly to protect those very things that Min Min had been talking about with friends.
Lawyer Thongbai Thongpao in his Bangkok Post column said that the body was good news. A regional rights agency would have more independence and courage than its national equivalents and would suffer less interference from governments, he said, pointing to the European human rights court as an example.
The stories of Aung Pe and Min Min suggest otherwise. Their cases speak to the vast difference between the human rights setting in Europe and that in Southeast Asia. The difference is not just in the scale and nature of abuse; it is in the structural barriers to redress.
Europe’s human rights body works not because of any regional formula but because domestic institutions also work. Nowhere are courts, parliaments and government departments perfect, but in Europe they perform their roles more or less as described. This means that where its regional bodies decide on something, domestic agencies are beholden to comply. Where they do not, they risk pressure from citizens and sanctions from neighbors.
None of this holds true for ASEAN nations, and least of all for Burma. In Southeast Asia, courts, parliaments and government departments do not function as described. In some countries they perform diametrically opposite roles to those of their European counterparts. Thus Burma’s justice system is more aptly labeled an injustice system, and its law enforcers, merely enforcers.
Where no means exist to protect human rights nationally, talk about regional mechanisms is pointless. If the courts in Burma have the express purpose of putting people like Min Min and Aung Pe in jail, ASEAN isn’t going to break them out. Its rights body won’t open any doors, just toe official lines.
Aung Pe was released because his time was up. But he can’t tutor anymore. The last date for renewal of his permit passed a few days before he was freed. He will either have to work again illegally or the orphans will have to make do without him.
Min Min has over two years left to serve. A human rights group has specially raised his case with the ASEAN secretary-general. It has not yet received any reply.
Further reading: The state of human rights in eleven Asian nations 2007 (AHRC)