A Myanmar court on Tuesday sentenced a prominent lawmaker and a writer to 20 years in prison on charges of high treason and defamation for making inflammatory speeches against the government at a public event, those involved in the case said.
Sittwe District Court sentenced Aye Maung, a member of parliament and former chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP), and writer Way Hin Aung to 20 years in jail for high treason and two years for defamation of the state with their sentences to be served concurrently.
Both men were arrested in January 2018 after giving speeches at a public event in Rathedaung township in Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state, and formally charged in September 2018.
During his speech at the event commemorating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom in Rakhine, Aye Maung is said to have accused the ethnic Bamar-dominated ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government of treating the ethnic Rakhine people like “slaves,” according to a report in the magazine Frontier Myanmar.
A day after the speech, police opened fire on a crowd of ethnic Rakhine protesters, killing at least seven of them.
After the sentencing, hundreds of Rakhine locals who came to court to show their support chanted slogans to show their disapproval of the lengthy prison sentences for the Rakhine politician.
Aye Maung was elected to Myanmar’s lower house of parliament in 2017 as an ANP representative for Ann township, though he later held the seat as an independent after resigning from the party later that year.
After he was arrested, Aye Maung sought to form a new political group called the Arakan Front Party, which the country’s Union Election Commission approved in October 2018, Frontier Myanmar said.
“Politics is very terrifying,” Aye Maung told reporters after his sentencing.
“If it becomes apparent that the political engagement approach with the creation of various political parties is not viable, then the Union and the Panglong Agreement that make this union will become a curse,” he said, referring to the 1947 accord in which General Aung San, father of current leader Aung San Suu Kyi, promised equal rights and self-determination to Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups.
‘Legally flawed sentence’
The court initially charged Aye Maung and Way Hin Aung with high treason, unlawful association, and defamation of the state, but later dropped the second charge because of insufficient evidence.
The defendants' attorneys cited Section 22 of 1973 Interpretation of Expressions Law, which states that if one action violates two or more existing laws, then the perpetrators should be charged with only one crime under the law that they broke.
“They opened three charges for his [Aye Maung’s] actions [which was a single speech] under the 1973 Interpretation of Expressions Law,” said attorney San Shwe Maung, who has been assisting with Aye Maung’s case.
“We argued in the Rakhine State Court that it was wrong to bring up three charges, and we appealed [the ruling] ... but it wasn’t accepted,” he said.
Aung Than Wai, a friend of Aye Maung, agreed that the sentence raised legal questions.
“I must say that the sentences disregard clauses in the existing laws,” he said. “I think it is a completely legally flawed sentence.”
Aung Htay, chairman of the ANP in Sittwe township, called the sentencing “totally unacceptable.”
“We are going to consult legal experts to continue to fight within legal boundaries,” he said. “With regards to the sentences, I think it is totally unfair.”
Members of parliament and political analysts criticized the court’s decision, calling the jail term handed to Aye Maung unjust and a disgrace for a democratic government.
Oo Hla Saw, an ethnic Rakhine lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township in Myanmar's lower house of parliament, said Aye Maung’s lengthy sentence is an example of the lack of freedom of speech in the country.
“Aye Maung is a member of parliament elected by the public,” he said. “He is also a respected leader among the Rakhine people. The government is giving him harsh prison sentences for exercising his right to freedom of speech.”
“Sentencing such a harmless person to prison for high treason is evidence that people’s basic rights are violated in this so-called democratic society,” he added.
Htu May, a prominent female Rakhine politician and lawmaker from Rakhine state constituency No. 11, said sentencing a leader who has widespread support among the Rakhine public to such a prison term would harm the ongoing political engagement process in the armed conflict between the government army and rebel Arakan Army in the western state.
“There is an ongoing civil war in Rakhine state,” she said. “Regardless of whether one is a Rakhine or a member of any other ethnic group, sentencing an ethnic leader to such a harsh punishment is a warning shot for all other ethnic leaders in the country. Today’s sentencing will intensify the anger of young Rakhine people and their pursuit of self-determination.”
Prominent Muslim politician and political observer Mya Aye, who said he was at odds with Aye Maung on several topics, said the handing down of a lengthy term to the lawmaker would not bode well for the country’s peace process.
“We are now seeing a suspension of peace talks with ethnic groups as part of a greater goal of transforming Myanmar to a federal union,” he said, referring to the government’s largely stalled formal peace negotiations among ethnic armies and the Myanmar military.
“Giving a lengthy prison sentence to a Rakhine ethnic leader at such a critical time will have no good impact on the peace process,” he added.
NLD not involved in verdict
Aye Maung was known to be an active collaborator with the former opposition NLD after several of the party's candidates, including Aung San Su Kyi, won by-elections in 2012 and become members of parliament.
Before the general election in 2015, Aye Maung was selected to represent ethnic groups in six-party talks on constitutional reform, a peace agreement, and the upcoming vote with then President Thein Sein, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, NLD chairwoman Aung San Su Kyi, and the two parliamentary chairmen Shwe Man and Khin Aung Myint.
Despite Aye Maung’s connections to the NLD, Ye Htun, a former lower house lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Development Party who keeps a close eye on what happens in parliament, said the current civilian-led administration did not likely have a hand in the court’s verdict.
“I think the judicial bodies are making the sentences independently,” he said. “I notice that Daw [honorific] Aung San Su Kyi is pretty cautious about not influencing court verdicts. I think she has drawn a clear boundary that the government administration and the politicians should not interfere with judicial independence.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.