Three antiwar activists were charged with criminal defamation on Wednesday for leading a protest in Myitkyina during which they called on the Myanmar government to rescue civilians displaced by hostilities between an ethnic army and Myanmar forces in volatile Kachin state, bringing the total number of demonstrators charged nationwide to 45.
About 5,000 people protested in Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, on April 30, demanding that the government provide assistance to residents who fled their homes and were trapped in forests with no food or water amid fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Three days later, around 300 people renewed the protest and staged a short-lived sit-in camp in the city.
Lwan Zaung and Zaw Jet, two of the three activists charged, appeared in Myitkyina Township Court during their first hearing on charges of violating Article 500 of the country’s Penal Code.
The third activist, Nang Pu, did not attend the hearing because she is out of town.
“They are being charged because what they said defamed the military,” said Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Oo from Northern Military Headquarters, who filed charges against them.
The military has increasingly been using Article 500, which dates back to the era of military rule, as a silencing tactic against protesters and journalists critical of it or of the government.
“We didn’t violate any law,” Lwan Zaung said. “We didn’t do anything that defamed the military or the government. We will defend ourselves according to the law.”
On Monday, domestic civil society groups banded together to call for charges to be dropped against the three Kachin youth leaders.
At the hearing, the court accepted the bail applications of Lwan Zaung and Zaw Jet.
The trio’s next hearing is scheduled for May 21.
Peaceful Assembly Law
Forty-two activists who participated in antiwar protests in other towns in May, including the commercial capital Yangon, Myingyan in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, and Pyay in Bago region, have been accused of not obtaining official permission to hold public demonstrations, as required by the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
Eight activists charged under the law for leading an antiwar protest in Yangon on May 12 were granted bail on Tuesday.
Those charged — Thet Swe Win, Moe Thway, Paing Ye Thu, Saung Kha, Htet Khaing Soe, Shar Yamone, Ei Ei Moe, and Thinzar Shwan Lei Yi — appeared at the Bahan township police station where they were granted bail, the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reported.
Lin Htet Naing, a ninth member of the group who did not appear because he is traveling abroad, will be deemed a fugitive if he does not return to Myanmar by May 27, township police commander Thein Win said, according to the report.
The nine are among 17 individuals who have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for participating in the protest at a traffic circle in the commercial capital. They each face a penalty of one month in prison or a 30,000 kyat (U.S. $22) fine.
The Yangon protest devolved into fistfights between protest organizers and baton-wielding riot police, with CSOs and activists accusing police of violating demonstrators’ human rights by conducting a violent crackdown on them as they started to head home.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent group consisting of 11 retired bureaucrats and academics, is investigating accusations against police and other plainclothes individuals to determine whether human rights violations occurred.
Meanwhile, police in Bago region’s Nattalin township briefly detained 13 high school students for staging a candlelight rally on Tuesday, during which they demanded an end to military offensives in Kachin and neighboring Shan state and the provision of relief to those displaced by the hostilities, DVB reported.
Clashes in the long-running conflict between the national army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have driven at least 7,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from their homes in Kachin state since early April, adding to about 100,000 already displaced, according to the United Nations human rights agency (OHCHR).
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.
EU, UN concerned about suffering
The European Union delegation to Myanmar issued a statement on Wednesday, calling on parties involved in the conflict in Kachin state, as well as in clashes in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, to immediately end hostilities and offensive combat operations in order to protect civilians.
“Reports of the use of excessive combat force, of civilians being prevented from fleeing, and of denied access to immediate humanitarian assistance of civilians in need are extremely worrying,” the statement said.
“Unfettered humanitarian access must be granted without delay and in full respect of international humanitarian law so that the most urgent needs of civilians can be catered for,” it said.
The EU also called on Myanmar to ensure that peaceful protesters can exercise freedom of expression and assembly.
“Lasting peace in Myanmar must come through negotiations and constructive political dialogue between all parties concerned,” the statement said. “In this context, the government of Myanmar must ensure the right to free expression and peaceful assembly. No person should be detained, arrested, charged, or sentenced for nonviolently expressing a desire for an end to hostilities and for peace.”
The EU’s statement came a day after OHCHR expressed profound concern over the growing conflicts between Myanmar forces and ethnic armed groups in both Kachin and Shan states, where 20 people were killed and more than two dozen injured in attacks by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Muse township on May 12.
“The protracted conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states has already caused immense suffering, and we urge all sides to work to resolve the situation through a genuine, meaningful dialogue,” OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville told the media in Geneva.
“We urge all sides to exercise restraint and to fully respect human rights and international humanitarian law, ensuring the protection of civilians at all times,” he said.
Colville also commented on the arrests of the peaceful protesters in Myitkyina.
“We call on the authorities in Myanmar to respect the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.