A national-level committee representing dozens of civil society groups in Myanmar asked authorities on Monday to stop the arrests of and violent crackdowns on demonstrators in the commercial capital Yangon, who have been peacefully protesting against the civil war in Kachin state.
Myanmar police want to charge 17 organizers of a 300-strong antiwar protest on May 12 in Yangon with "disturbing the public" and staging a protest without permission from authorities, Reuters reported. The event ended in a melee between protest organizers and baton-wielding riot police.
The protesters called for an end to fighting between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state and for officials to help thousands of displaced civilians, some of whom have been trapped in war zones for weeks.
They also called for charges to be dropped against Kachin youth leaders Lwan Zaung, Nang Pu, and Zaw Jet, who led a protest in Kachin’s capital Myitkyina to free trapped residents.
They have been charged with criminal defamation under Article 500 of the Penal Code, and their hearing is set for May 16.
“We strongly reject authorities’ arrests of protesters,” said Soe Htay, a member of the Union-Level Committee CSOs for Peace Forum (UCCPF), during a press conference in Yangon. “Even if they needed to take action against these protesters, there should be step-by-step procedures.”
“And either the police who arrested protesters didn’t wear their uniforms while they were on duty, or the people who arrested the protesters were not police officers,” he said. “We frankly want to say that this presents a very ugly image for the Myanmar Police Force.”
The UCCPF, whose members visited Kachin state on May 3 and 11, issued a five-point statement, demanding that the government assist displaced civilians by opening an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Tanaing township, drop charges against protesters and end the violence against them, recognize those who fled their homes as legal IDPs, solve the region’s political problems through political means, and adhere to the terms of agreements between the Kachin independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, and the government’s peace committee.
Protesters informed authorities
Rights groups and lawyers see the pursuit of charges against peaceful protesters as a threat to freedom of expression and assembly in the Southeast Asian nation, which voted in a civilian-led government in late 2015 after five decades of military rule.
A man surnamed Htay from the Union Lawyers and Paralegals Association (ULPA) said people had informed authorities about their intent to hold a protest.
“According to Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, people don’t need permission if they inform authorities in advance,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Authorities from relevant departments must even help and protect protesters.”
“Article 18 says that people who harass protesters can have legal action taken against them,” he said.
The ULPA issued a statement demanding the release of the protest leaders and demonstrators and the transfer of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees Myanmar’s police force, to the control of the country’s president.
“The constitution allows citizens to peacefully assemble, but Yangon’s chief minister issued an order not to allow assemblies in 11 townships in the region,” he said. “This is a legislation problem.”
Prominent Myanmar lawyer Robert San Aung pointed out that people who were not police officers and who were wearing civilian clothes aggressively attacked and took away protesters.
“There were about 100 male and female police officers at the protest site, and the protesters didn’t provoke them,” he said. “I want to say that what these police did to protesters was not according to law.”
In Mandalay, Than Htike and Hnin Aung, who participated in an antiwar protest in the central Myanmar town in Mandalay on May 8, appeared for the first time in Aung Myay Thar San Township Court to face charges for allegedly violating Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities.
The pair, who were charged on May 11, are among 19 activists in the town who have been charged under Article 19 for demonstrating against the government to stop the civil war in Kachin state.
“Because we don’t trust the 2008 constitution and the country’s judicial service, we will not cooperate with the court,” Than Htike said.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Nay Rein Kyaw, and Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.