Myanmar’s human rights commission met on Friday with members of a domestic organization dedicated to protecting journalists to investigate reports that plainclothes individuals at a peaceful antiwar protest that turned violent in Yangon last month encouraged the beating and arrest of reporters covering the event.
During the May 12 rally, demonstrators called for an end to civil war in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state and for officials to rescue civilians trapped in conflict zones. But the protest devolved into fistfights between protest organizers and baton-wielding riot police, with civil society groups and activists accusing police and others in plainclothes of violating demonstrators’ human rights by attacking them as they started to head home.
Six days after the protest, the Myanmar Press Council denounced the threats against the media and the suppression of reporters during the crackdown on the antiwar protesters.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent group consisting of 11 retired bureaucrats and academics, has been examining closed-circuit videos, interviewing people from both sides, and reviewing related documents to determine whether human rights violations occurred.
Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists told the MHRC that the attacks by baton-wielding police and plainclothes individuals were human rights violations.
“When we reported the police action against protesters on May 13 to the MHRC, its members called me for testimony as a plaintiff to find out who controlled the plainclothes men and which organization was operating behind the scenes,” said Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of the country’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
“The MHRC members told us that they will call on relevant police officers and general administrative officers to give testimony,” he said. “They will submit what they find to the Ministry of Home Affairs or to the President’s Office.”
The 300-person demonstration in Yangon was one of several antiwar protests that young people staged in May, including protests in Myingyan township of Mandalay region, in Pyay and Nattalin townships of Bago region, and in Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina.
‘Not a good sign’
So far, 52 protesters have been charged since May 5, most for violating Article 19 of the country’s peaceful assembly law, which requires demonstrators to get permission from local officials to hold marches and rallies in advance of the events.
Three Myitkyina demonstrators have been charged with criminal defamation for statements they made during the rallies.
Protesters Aung Hmine San and Soe Moe Naing both received two-month jail sentences for their involvement in the Mandalay rally, while Poet Kalint was handed a one-month sentence. Lwan Zaung and Sut Sai Htwe from the Myitkyina march were fined 30,000 kyats ($22) each.
The others are still facing trials.
“I’m sure they will receive imprisonments or monetary fines, or both,” said Maung Saung Kha, executive director of the youth-activist organization Voice. “This kind of charge for political activity will not usually be withdrawn.”
Intensified fighting this year in the long-running civil war between Myanmar forces and the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic militia, has displaced more than 7,400 civilians in Kachin state’s Hpakant, Tanaing, and Injangyang townships since early April, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Armed conflict and human rights violations have displaced more than 100,000 civilians in the state since June 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down.
“We protested against the wars and for peace, but the opposing side [the police and military] made people think that we supported armed rebel groups,” Maung Saung Kha said. “They want discord among the people, and this is not a good sign.”
Maung Saung Kha also said that the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees Myanmar’s police force, had ordered the crackdowns on protesters.
“The relevant regional chief ministers should control this kind of situation,” he said.
Reported by Thet Su Aung and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.