About 6,000 residents of Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar's Kachin state, staged a protest on Tuesday over the jailing of three prominent youth activists who helped organize peaceful demonstrations earlier this year, demanding their immediate release, those who took part in the event said.
On Dec. 7, the Myitkyina township court convicted Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat, of defaming the Myanmar military under Section 500 of the Penal Code for their involvement in rallies on April 30 and May 1 that drew thousands of participants who called on the government to end to the civil war in the state and to assist civilians trapped in a conflict zone.
Lum Zawng, a Kachin lawyer, Nang Pu, a founding member of the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, and Zau Jat of the Kachin National Social Development Foundation, also made speeches during the rallies, accusing the armed forces of causing the displacement of civilians.
The three activists were sentenced to six months in prison and each fined 500,000 kyats (U.S. $320).
The thousands of protesters from religious groups, NGOs, and youth organizations who marched through Myitkyina on Tuesday said the sentences were too harsh for the trio, who had only asked that authorities help displaced civilians in the state’s Tanaing township gold and amber mining region.
The verdicts did not render justice and were tantamount to the suppression of the human rights activists, they said.
‘It will not succeed’
A day after the verdicts were issued, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement demanding that Myanmar authorities overturn the convictions.
“The Tatmadaw is once again using criminal defamation laws to punish those who criticize its actions,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, using the Burmese name of the Myanmar military.
“By filing charges against activists who simply urged help for civilians trapped by fighting, Myanmar’s military shows its unwillingness to curtail serious abuses,” he said.
The Karen Peace Support Network, the largest coalition of ethnic Karen civil society organizations in Myanmar, also condemned the conviction and jailing of the Kachin activists.
“The jailing of these activists is designed to silence criticism of the military and their actions,” the group said in a statement issued Dec. 9. “It will not succeed. Ethnic people will stand united for our rights, for peace, and for our freedom.”
The network also called on the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to use its constitutional power to immediately release the trio as well as all political prisoners in Myanmar and to repeal laws used by officials to jail and attempt to silence their critics.
On Tuesday, Burma Campaign UK issued a similar call, decrying the sentences and demanding the immediate release of the activists.
“It is outrageous that they should have been jailed for organizing candlelight vigils and peaceful protests, calling for humanitarian aid for starving people,” said Anna Roberts, the group’s executive director, in a statement.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have the majority in parliament to repeal all repressive laws, and they should do so,” she said. “The only reason these three activists are now in prison is that the NLD doesn’t care enough about fundamental human rights to protect them.”
Resurgence in fighting
Kachin state has seen a resurgence in fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed organization, and the Myanmar military since June 2011, following the breakdown of a 17-year cease-fire.
During the past seven years, the hostilities have displaced more than 100,000 civilians in Kachin state, the majority of whom live in displacement camps near Myitkyina and in neighboring Waingmaw township.
Fighting between the two armies escalated this year, forcing thousands of villagers to flee their homes and seek shelter in displacement camps, Christian churches, or Buddhist monasteries, where some have been cut off from humanitarian aid.
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 10 of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armies inked in October 2015.
A United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar found extensive human rights violations and abuses carried out against civilians primarily by the national military, as well as violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states.
The mission’s report, issued in September, said that the actions of the army in Kachin state amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Merger of Kachin parties
Meanwhile, three Kachin political parties have applied for registration to the Union Election Commission (UEC) under a new name after the latter turned down their earlier application.
The Kachin Democratic Party (KDP), Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), and Unity and Development Party of Kachin State (UDPKS) applied to the UEC last month to merge into a single party called the Kachin State Party.
“The UEC said the name could be confused with those of other parties with similar names and told us to come up with a new name,” Manam Tu Ja, KDP chairman and spokesman for the alliance to combine the three parties, told RFA's Myanmar Service. “So the three parties are now applying for an alliance under the name Kachin State People’s Party.”
The three parties agreed to merge in January 2018 to fulfill the desire of the Kachin people to have a strong, united, and powerful political party, Manam Tu Ja earlier told the Myanmar Times.
Reported by Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.