Myanmar Activists Jailed For Protesting on Behalf of Civilians Displaced by Fighting

A court in Myanmar’s Kachin state on Friday sentenced three prominent youth activists to six months in jail and ordered them to pay fines for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations during which protesters called on the government to help civilians trapped in war zones by fighting in the northern state.

The township court in Kachin’s capital Myitkyina convicted Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat, of defaming the Myanmar military under Section 500 of the Penal Code for helping to organize the events and making speeches to rally support for villagers trapped in the state’s Tanaing township gold and amber mining region.

About 5,000 protesters rallied in Myitkyina on April 30 and May 1, demanding an end to the national army’s offensives and the rescue of about 3,000 people trapped in the area during fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the national military. Three days later, around 300 people renewed the protest and staged a short-lived sit-in camp in the city.

The three activists said they first tried to talk with Kachin state officials to help the displaced residents, but decided to stage a protest after they did not respond to their request.

“We have been sentenced for trying to help people in trouble,” said Lum Zawng, a lawyer who is involved in social issues. “When they heard our sentences, people realized how much Myanmar’s judicial system is falling apart. We are deeply concerned about how this system will mete out justice for people.”

The three were ordered to pay fines of 500,000 kyats (U.S. $320) each and told they would receive an additional six months in prison if they failed to pay.

Lieutenant-Colonel Myo Min Oo from the military’s Northern Region Command who filed criminal defamation complaints against the activists for insulting the armed forces by raising the plight of civilians trapped by the conflict, did not attend the hearing.

Some residents who had been trapped during the hostilities showed up at court for the hearing.

‘We are speechless’

About 60 locals and rights activists staged a demonstration outside the courthouse to showing their disapproval with the court’s ruling, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

Following the hearing, the trio’s lawyers and some of the residents displaced by fighting on whose behalf they had protested held a press conference at Myitkyina’s Manaw Park to express their disagreement with the sentences.

Kachin youth organizations also said they would release a statement calling for the three activists to be set free.

“The decision of the court shows that our country is not a democratic country although the current government came to power by proclaiming itself a democratic government,” said Nang Pu, director of Htoi Gender and Development Foundation. “The lack of rule of law is threatening the right to information.”

Nang Sai, a resident of the Jormasae internally displaced persons camp, said she and others had called Nang Pu to ask her to help trapped villagers who did not have access to food during the clashes.

“We are speechless about seeing these three sentenced; we’re very sad,” she said. “We want to see them released immediately.”

Dwe Bu, an attorney representing the protesters, said their legal team will submit an appeal of their sentences to a higher court.

‘Appalling verdict’

London-based rights group Amnesty International also expressed disapproval of the verdict and called for it to be overturned.

“Today’s appalling verdict against three peaceful activists shows the government’s determination to silence any criticism of their actions in this deadly conflict — and repress any peaceful opposition to the military whatsoever,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s director of crisis response.

“These jail sentences reflect a pattern of continued attacks, intimidation, threats, and prosecutions against human rights defenders, journalists, and community leaders who peacefully speak out in defense of civilian victims of military operations,” she said.

Myanmar government and military officials have increasing used vaguely worded laws to bring criminal charges against those who are publicly critical of their actions.

Government soldiers have regularly clashed with the KIA, which controls large swathes of territory in the state including the Tanaing area of Myitkyina district, since a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement collapsed in 2011.

The hostilities have forced more than 100,000 residents to flee to safety over the years, with many seeking shelter in Buddhist monasteries, Christian churches, or displaced persons camps in the state.

Reported by Elizabeth Janmar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.