A former child soldier has been arrested and charged with allegedly defaming the country’s military after telling the story of his abduction and forced conscription to RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Aung Ko Htway, 26, who spent nearly a decade as a child soldier, was arrested on Friday, and faces up to two years in prison, a fine, or both for violating Section 505(b) of the country’s Penal Code, his sister Nayzar Htun told Agence France-Presse on Aug. 18.
The section pertains to making, publishing, or circulating information that may cause public fear or alarm and incite people to commit offenses against the state or disrupt public tranquility.
Aung Ko Htway is being detained in Insein Prison on the outskirts of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon as he awaits his first court hearing on Sept. 1, she said.
RFA’s Myanmar Service and English-language website ran videos and articles on Aung Ko Htway last week.
“It's beyond outrageous for anyone in the Burmese military to press charges against former child soldier Aung Ko Htway simply for telling the story of how he was abused after being abducted by the military at age 14,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at international right group Human Rights Watch, in an email statement on Monday.
“The government should immediately drop this charge and release Aung Ko Htway, and demand the Tatmadaw follow through by issuing a formal apology and financial compensation for ruining his youth,” he said referring to the formal name of the Myanmar army.
Aung Ko Htway was abducted by a Myanmar army sergeant in 2005 when he was 14 years old and later imprisoned after he and two others escaped and robbed the owner of a motorcycle. One of the other boys strangled the man to death, though Aung Ko Htway maintains that he did not participate in the murder.
Aung Ko Htway served seven months at a prison camp in Lashio, the largest town in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, where he was shackled and fed a mixture of rice and sand until he agreed to sign a confession.
Though he was originally sentenced to death, Aung Ko Htway had his sentence reduced twice under presidential amnesties. He was finally released on July 15, 2017, and returned home where he started a business with his sister’s help selling cotton clothing in Kalawae village in Yangon region’s Thanlyin township.
A betrayal of commitment
The Myanmar army has discharged 849 children and young people from its ranks since 2012, when the country signed an agreement with the United Nations to stop recruiting children under 18.
The U.N., however, continues to list the Myanmar military and seven ethnic armed groups on its blacklist of organizations around the world that recruit and use child soldiers.
“Filing [the] charge against Aung Ko Htway for simply speaking the truth about his experience as a child soldier betrays the spirit of the Tatmadaw's commitment to the international community to end the use of child soldiers,” Robertson said.
He added that the governments and international agencies that support work on child soldiers should demand that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, order the officer who filed charges against Aung Ko Htway to drop them immediately.
Those in power, including military officers, government leaders, and religious figures, are increasingly using Section 505(b) of Myanmar's Penal Code and Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law to prosecute their critics on defamation charges.
Section 66(d) prohibits use of the telecom network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” people. On Aug. 18, Myanmar’s lower house of parliament approved amendments to the 2013 law that reduce the maximum prison sentence to two years from three years and allow judges to release violators on bail. A draft document with the changes has been submitted to upper house lawmakers.