Authorities in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state have arrested and jailed an ethnic Kachin NGO for violating Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which prohibits involvement with an unlawful organization, a police official said on Friday.
Min Sign, who lives in Machanbaw township and leads a civil society organization called Nang Shani, was arrested on Thursday for allegedly having links to an ethno-nationalist fighter from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and is now confined to a jail in Putao township, said officer Khin Zaw from the Machanbaw Police Station.
The militia has engaged in skirmishes with the Myanmar army since 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down.
The latest round of fighting began early this year when government soldiers launched air strikes in the Tanaing gold and amber mining region, an area controlled by the KIA, which relies on its natural resources as a source of income by levying a tax on mine operators.
Min Sign’s arrest occurred on the same day that the KIA warned mine workers in the isolated Hukawng valley to leave the area before it launched new offensives against the Myanmar military on April 10.
“There was fighting between the government army and the KIA in 2013,” Khin Zaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The government army’s Battalion 137 filed a complaint against him [Min Sign] under Article 17(1), saying he gave information to the KIA.
“The plaintiff, a military official from Battalion 137, an official from the Putao Military Science Unit, and the Putao police are currently testifying in the case,” he said.
Because Min Sign is a member of the Putao District World Heritage Site committee as well as a civil society worker, other NGOs, including the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, have pledged to help him with his case.
The northernmost point of Kachin state, Putao is the site of a forest complex that houses Mount Hkakabo Razi, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain standing at 5,880 meters (19,300 feet), a national park, and wildlife sanctuary.
The area was nominated in 2014 as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.
‘It is impossible’
Sign Mon, Min Sign’s wife who is an assistant headmistress at a local high school, said her husband would not be involved with a rebel group.
“We are government staff,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “I am a teacher. I can strongly guarantee that my husband hasn’t violated Article 17(1). It is impossible. He’s just a CSO worker and focuses on local people’s problems such as land grabs, large-scale land appropriations by companies, governments, or investors with little or no compensation given to property owners or renters.
The Unlawful Associations Act was used during Myanmar’s decades of military junta rule to detain those linked to rebel groups, and continues to be used to jail people in Kachin state for being in contact with the KIA.
The law defines an “unlawful association” as one that “encourages or aids persons to commit acts of violence or intimidation or of which the members habitually commit such acts.” Article 17(1) of the act sets out prison terms of two to three years and a possible fine for being a member of an “unlawful association,” making contributions to one, or assisting its operations.
In recent years, local and international rights groups have called on the government to amend or rescind the law, fearing that domestic NGOs might unwittingly come under the scope of the act.
Nang Pu from the Wonlet Foundation, a Kachin state-based NGO, said Nang Shani is the only CSO based in remote Putao and mostly focuses on animal husbandry issues.
When we gather in [Kachin state’s capital] Myitkyina for CSO forums, he [Min Sign] doesn’t usually join in,” she said. “Other CSO members, including myself, always go to Laiza too, but he has never been there. He is too far away to be able to violate 17(1).”
The town of Laiza on the Chinese-Myanmar border where the KIA’s headquarters are located was the target of rounds of artillery fire by government forces late last year and in early 2017, the KIA said earlier.
Nang Pu also questioned why police arrested Min Sign five years after they said that he gave information to the KIA.
“I feel as though they are trying to muddle the situation, especially at this time when we are trying to work on peace,” she told RFA. “This situation causes people to lose their trust in the government and in the police. It’s politics.”
Doi (Dwe) Bu, an ethnic Kachin and former lawmaker from the Unity and Democracy Party–Kachin State in the lower house of the national parliament, also raised doubts about Min Sign violating the unlawful associations statute.
“As far as I know, he is just a CSO worker,” she told RFA. “Nowadays, the government is talking with the KIA, and the KIA is constantly keeping in touch with local people, asking for their opinions and suggestions.”
“If they arrest people who have connection with the KIA, the peace process will not move forward,” she said. “The KIA or government military should open their doors to hear the people’s and CSO’s opinions and suggestions regarding the peace process.”
“If a CSO worker like him is arrested, people’s participation in the peace process will be delayed and difficult,” she said.
No end to fighting
The KIA is one of several militias with which the Myanmar government is trying to end decades of ethnic separatist civil wars and forge peace in the country through a series of peace negotiations launched in August 2016 by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, has not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement that eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armies inked in October 2015, with two more having joined since then.
The Myanmar military has accused the KIA of illegally using the area’s natural resources and taking money from mining businesses that should otherwise go to the state, while the ethnic militia believes the government army has stepped up its attacks on rebel-held territory in hopes of gaining control before the next round of peace negotiations in May.
Over the years, the hostilities have displaced more than 90,000 people who have sought safety in Buddhist monasteries, Christian churches, or displaced persons camps in the state.
The recent bout of fighting this year has forced thousands of miners and their families to flee the area or has trapped them inside war zones in the Tanaing region and in Sumprabung township where they have faced food and water shortages because blocked roadways have prevented them from leaving the area to get supplies.
Rights groups have called on the Myanmar military to allow unfettered humanitarian access to civilians in need in Kachin state.
On Friday, Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), visited Kachin internally displaced persons (IDP) camps during a weeklong visit to Myanmar.
She visited residents of the Maina IDP camp operated by the Kachin Baptist Convention in Myitkyina township, home to more than 2,500 people, many of whom have been displaced since 2011, according to a Facebook post by UNOCHA Myanmar.
They discussed issues they face, including land ownership, leftover landmines, safety concerns, and difficulties accessing their land, the post said.
Mueller also met with local humanitarian organizations and visited a center for women and girls in Myitkyina where she met with women who work on gender-based violence issues in displacement camps, it said.
Reported by Aung Thein Kha and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.