Myanmar police charged 51 protesting workers from a wood-processing factory on Thursday with four offenses after a clash with police who had blocked them from marching to the administrative capital Naypyidaw to ask government leaders to intervene in a labor dispute.
About 100 workers from the Myanmar Veneer and Plywood Private Ltd. factory in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region had sought government mediation in a labor dispute with the company, which they say wrongfully fired them for demanding overtime pay and improvements in working conditions.
Police arrested the protesters on Wednesday and took them to neaby Takton township for processing.
“They are being charged under Articles 143 and 145, 147 and 505(b) ... for joining in or continuing an unlawful assembly and rioting,” said Colonel Ko Ko Aung of the Naypyidaw police told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The first three articles pertain to participating in an unlawful assembly, refusing to obey police and causing disorder, while Article 505(b) of the penal code pertains to disturbing public order. Authorities in Myanmar routinely use these broad articles to quell dissent and charge peaceful protestors, with prison sentences for those who violate them, rights activists say.
After police took them to a police station in nearby Tatkon township, labor officials filed charges only against the leaders of the protest, as instructed by Naypyidaw authoritie
“The workers have been demanding that [the factory] rehire the ones who were fired,” said Min Thway, secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).
“If factory owners can’t hire all of them back, then the Labor Ministry should create jobs for the rest of workers by coordinating with civil society organizations,” he said.
Police arrested some ABFSU students along with the marching workers, prompting the organization to issue a statement on Wednesday demanding the release of all those taken into custody.
Five ABSFU members, including Than Htike, Ye Yint Paing Hmu and a female student from Mandalay who were helping the workers, were arrested, Min Thway told RFA.
“The marching workers asked students to help them, so the ABSFU members joined them to help with food and money and surrounded the workers [to protect them],” he said.
The group’s statement asked the new government led by President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party to pressure the Ministry of Home Affairs, controlled by the military commander-in-chief, not to crack down on peaceful protestors, he said.
“We didn’t like the enforced crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations that authorities did during the military government’s term,” Min Thway said, in reference to the sometimes violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators by the military junta that ruled the country for 50 years until 2011.
Deputies debate protest bill
The charges against the wood-processing plant workers come as the new civilian-led government debates changing an oppressive protest law as part of its democratic reforms.
The upper house of parliament on Friday decided to review a bill that would replace the current Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law to bring it into accordance with international human rights norms, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The current law passed in 2012 under the previous military-backed government requires those planning demonstrations to obtain permission from local authorities five days in advance and to provide details about their planned activities.
In early May, the NLD recommended changes to the law requiring protestors to notify local authorities two days in advance, introducing a new 15-day statute of limitations, and preventing multiple township authorities from prosecuting those arrested, The Irrawaddy reported.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.