The Myanmar Press Council on Friday denounced threats against the media and the suppression of reporters during a recent crackdown by authorities on antiwar protesters in Yangon.
The call came in response to a report by a domestic organization dedicated to protecting journalists that said plainclothes individuals at the demonstration encouraged the beating and arrest of reporters.
About 300 youths participated in a protest on May 12 in Yangon during which they 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 demanded that charges be dropped against Kachin youth leaders Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat, who led a similar demonstration in Kachin’s capital Myitkyina.
The peaceful protest devolved into fistfights between rally organizers and baton-wielding riot police, who later charged 17 protesters with violating Article 19 of The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) and activists who participated in the antiwar protest informed the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC) that police conducted violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators in Yangon as they started to head home, thereby violating their human rights.
The MHRC said it is investigating the reports and will submit its findings to the Yangon regional government and regional police force.
“We have received a report from [Myanmar’s] Committee for the Protection of Journalists saying that people wearing plainclothes attacked and threatened protesters,” said MPC spokesman Zayar Hlaing. “That’s why we released this statement to protect journalists.”
“The MPC can’t take action against people, but it has to protect journalists,” he said about the independent media adjudication body that mediates press disputes and promotes journalism ethics.
Police are responsible for protecting the media, according to Myanmar law, but in this instance they did not, the MPC said, adding that it will send its statement to the MHRC.
‘Stop the ongoing fighting’
Meanwhile, four detained activists who took part an antiwar protest in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay urged the government during a hearing in Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court on Friday to address the intensified fighting in Kachin state.
Aung Hmine San, Dain Daung, Than Htike, and Hnin Aung were detained for leading protesters on a march through town on May 6, during which they demanded an end to the fighting in Kachin state and for the government to rescue those trapped by the clashes.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San [Suu Kyi], President Win Myint, and the government should do something to stop the ongoing fighting in the country,” Aung Hmine San said. “They have been silent. We would like to ask them to talk about doing something to stop the war.”
In all, 42 activists who participated in antiwar protests in Yangon and in other towns this month have been charged with violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, while the three activists in Myitkyina have been charged with criminal defamation.
About 5,000 people protested in Myitkyina on April 30. Three days later, around 300 people renewed the protest and staged a short-lived sit-in camp in the city.
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.
New restriction on CSOs
Myanmar has increasingly tightened its control over freedom of assembly regarding other groups such as CSOs.
The Mon state government in southern Myanmar issued an order on Thursday requiring CSOs to obtain an official permit from the General Administration Department 10 days before holding meetings and workshops in the state, said Tun Aung, a member of the Mon State Civil Society Organizations Network.
“It is like the government that was elected by the people is behaving like a dictatorship,” Tun Aung said. “The government can’t do anything so that people to have more rights or freedom, but only put more fear into society and solve problems with a lot of controls.”
RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable reach the Mon state government office for comment.
In 2013, during President Thein Sein’s term, CSOs had to inform authorities if they wanted to hold meetings or workshops, but this requirement expired at the end of that year.
“A CSO meeting or workshop is not a public gathering [because] only invited people can attend,” said Myint Kyaw, secretary general of the Myanmar Journalist Network.
“Officers from Myanmar’s Special Branch and Military Intelligence [agencies] also come to these CSO events because they consider it their duty,” he said. “It is enough. Asking CSOs to apply for permission 10 days before an event is too much control. It shouldn’t be like this.”
Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer from the Asia Human Rights Commission, said the new requirement is “not a good sign” and noted that the restriction violates the constitution’s provision for peaceful gatherings.
“CSOs could hold meetings or workshops freely in the past, but the General Administration Department that is controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs is painting a picture that CSOs are tightly restricted and controlled under the current government.”
'It is backward'
Nyo Nyo Thin, a former Yangon regional lawmaker who participated in a 500-strong rally in the commercial capital in early March to oppose proposed changes to the country’s public assembly law, said that because state governments are working for the democratic central government, they must also work with CSOs.
“But the Mon state government issued its order, and it is the same as previous military governments did, and it is backward,” she said, adding that state administrators should review the decision.
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government, suggested that the directive may be needed in Myanmar, which is still an emerging democracy.
“As I always say, I believe in freedom of expression; but I would like to caution that we still don’t have full democracy,” he said.
“If we allow people to exercise the full freedoms of democracy, some can take advantage of them,” he said. “That’s why the Mon state government issued this order, because it wants to control this risk during the transition period.”
“Please remember that the NLD government’s main aim is to go in this direction until Myanmar becomes a fully democratic country with full human rights as soon as it possibly can,” Myo Nyunt said. “We will try to have a situation in which there are no restrictions on people who want to protest.”
By Aung Theinkha, Khaymani Win, Kyaw Lwin Oo, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.