Two Myanmar Students Sentenced to Year in Prison For Rakhine War Protest

A court in Myanmar sentenced two anti-war student protesters to a year in jail on Wednesday, hurrying them from the courtroom before family members could see them or hear the court’s verdict, sources said on Thursday.

Kyaw Ye Thu, president of the Student Union of Pyay University, and Htet Aung, vice president of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU), were convicted under Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code and immediately sent to jail. The Bago region residents had led protests against the two-year-old war in Rakhine state. 

Previous court sessions had begun at 10:00, but proceedings on Wednesday began at 9:30, leaving the students no time to meet with family members, Kyaw Thu’s uncle Ashin Obatha told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday.

“The court’s decision was announced earlier [than expected], and it appears they did this deliberately so that we couldn’t see them,” Ashin, a Buddhist monk, said. ”The police put them in jail immediately, and we went to the jail from the court, but the families couldn’t see them.”

“Only about five minutes was spent in the court,” added a supporter named Ko Paing. “We then followed the prison truck from the court to the jail, as we weren’t sure about their sentence.”

“When they arrived at the jail, they were pushed into the building as soon as they got off the truck,” Ko Paing said. “And when we shouted out to ask what their sentence was, the police shouted back ‘One year.’ Their parents weren’t allowed to see them.”

Lawyers representing the students said the trial had not been conducted in line with Article 366(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which calls for judgments in every trial to be pronounced in open court. Rights groups in Myanmar have criticized the lack of transparency in the country’s judiciary, calling it a form of oppression incompatible with Myanmar’s NLD-led government.

“Usually, people know what the prison term will be when they hear the court’s decision, but no one heard it this time, so we didn’t know how long they would be in jail,” said defense attorney Phyu Phyu Win.

“We didn’t hear the prosecution’s charges, statements from the accused, any of the evidence presented against them, or any discussion of what law they may have violated. The trial was not held in line with Article 366(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code,” she said.

Sources say that charges under the code are often used to stifle political dissent by criminalizing the use of statements and report with the intent to induce soldiers to rebel or fail in their duties, or to induce someone to commit an offense against the state of disrupt public tranquility.

Each charge carries punishments of up to two years in jail, or a fine, or both.

'Incompatible with democracy'

Rights groups have criticized the statute as incompatible with democracy, saying its provisions are vaguely written and could be used arbitrarily to restrict freedom of expression.

Continued use of courts and vague laws to stifle critics has been seen as a black mark on democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s five-year tenure as her country’s first civilian leader after five decades of harsh military rule. Voters gave her a second five-year term in general elections on Nov. 8.

Maung Saung Kha, a member of the youth-led Athan human rights watch group, said the students’ trial was like trials held under Myanmar’s previous military government, adding that they had been charged under harsh laws only for a leafleting campaign and were “discriminated against” in various ways during their trial.

“It should never have been this way,” he said.

“We now have more political prisoners, because activists are being put into jails like chickens or birds,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi from the Action Committee for Democracy Development said, adding that the numbers of those in jail will continue to grow “as long as students, Rakhine people, and other activists are treated unjustly.”

“These kinds of movements will not stop even if the authorities put them in jail,” she said.

On Oct. 19, four student protesters from the Rakhine Students Union were arrested in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe and charged under Section 505(b) for demanding an end to the war between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) that has raged in northern Rakhine and in the Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state since late 2018.

Another 14, most of them members of the ABFSU, were arrested in September, with around 30 others going into hiding to avoid arrest.

The students have staged anti-war demonstrations and stuck leaflets on utility poles in several cities since Sept. 10, including Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay, Pakokku in Magway region, and Monywa in Sagaing region.

Nearly 300 civilians have died in the conflict, while more than 640 have been injured and 220,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.