A total of 42 activists who participated in demonstrations this month against the civil war in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state have been charged with violating the country’s peaceful assembly law, a freedom of expression group said Tuesday.
Some activists who protested on May 12 in the commercial capital Yangon and in other rallies in Myingyan in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region and in Pyay in Bago region have been accused of not obtaining official permission to hold public demonstrations, as required by the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, said a statement issued by the organization Voice, comprised mostly of young activists.
“Most people have been charged this month,” said Maung Saung Kha, Voice’s executive director. “It is the highest rate of arrests for peaceful protests during this current government. All of them have been charged for protesting against the fighting in Kachin state.”
The protesters called for an end to fighting between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in war-torn Kachin state and for officials to help thousands of displaced civilians, some of whom have been trapped in war zones for weeks.
On Monday, a national-level committee representing dozens of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Myanmar asked authorities to stop the arrests of and violent crackdowns on demonstrators in Yangon where about 300 people protested on Saturday.
The protest devolved into fistfights between organizers and baton-wielding police, who have charged 17 protesters, including Zayar Lwin, Myat Kyaw, Khin Sandar, Tin Htut Paing, Maung Saung Kha, Shar Yamone, Thet Swe Win, Moe Thway, and Thinzar Shoon Leiye with violating Article 19 of The Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities.
Rights groups and lawyers see the pursuit of charges against peaceful protesters as a threat to freedom of expression and assembly in the Southeast Asian nation, which voted in a civilian-led government in late 2015 after five decades of military rule.
Human rights commission to investigate
Meanwhile, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent group consisting of 11 retired bureaucrats and academics, will investigate the violent crackdown on the Yangon antiwar protesters and report its findings to the Yangon regional government and regional police force, commission member Yu Lwin Aung said Tuesday.
CSOs and activists who participated in the antiwar protests informed the MHRC that police conducted violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators as they started to head home and violated their human rights.
“If the police arrested demonstrators when they were going home, it shouldn’t be like this,” Yu Lwin Aung said. “But we didn’t see what really happened that day with our own eyes because we were not there, so we have to listen to the other side.”
“We will review and decide who violated human rights after listening to both sides,” he said.
The MHRC will watch closed-circuit videos, talk to people from both sides, and review related documents before determining whether authorities violated human rights, he said.
The Myanmar police have already come under fire in the ongoing trial of two Reuters news agency reporters detained for the past five months on charges of obtaining state secrets, despite recent court testimony by a policeman who said authorities set them up in a sting operation.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were taken into custody on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. They were formally charged on Jan. 10 and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
In April, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, called as a witness for the prosecution, gave sworn testimony that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko had ordered subordinates to set up the reporters and arrest them for possessing state secrets for their work investigating violence against the Rohingya.
The military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the country’s police, has denied accusations that police set up the reporters, said Police Chief Major General Aung Win Oo at a press conference in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday.
“Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that the police had set up the Reuters reporters,” he said, responding to a journalist’s question. “The police didn’t do it. Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko has not been charged or taken action against because he didn’t set up the Reuters reporters as Moe Yan Naing said.”
Aung Win Oo also said that the police brigadier general does not know the reporters, and saw them only for the first time in court during their ongoing trial.
“Police Brigadier general Tin Ko Ko didn’t order anybody to set them up,” he said.
Reported by Thet Su Aung, Aung Theinkha, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.