Authorities in Myanmar Monday charged nine students with violating the country’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law after they staged a protest Sunday against the government’s suspension of internet services in restive Rakhine and Chin states, home to fighting between ethnic insurgents and Myanmar’s military.
The nine students organized and were part of a gathering of about 100 who demanded that the government reinstate mobile internet access in nine townships in Chin and Rakhine. Internet access was blocked in June of last year. In five of the nine townships, access was later reinstated, but then blocked again earlier this month.
Under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, the students could face sentences of up to three months, because they did not receive prior permission to hold the protest.
Sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service that police officers in plainclothes ventured onto the campus of Yangon University to make arrests. Six of the nine students who were charged were in custody, Reuters news agency quoted a participant in the protest as saying.
One of the accused students, Myat Hein Tun, secretary of the university's Rakhine Students Union, told RFA that he disagreed with the manner in which the arrests were made.
“I think it is totally unacceptable,” Myat Hein Tun said.
“They should not make arrests on a university campus,” the student leader added.
Another student, Htoo Khant Zaw, secretary of the Federation of Myanmar Student Union, told RFA that organizers felt they did not need permission to stage their protest because under a democratic government, they have the right to peacefully protest.
“We are not allowed to express our opinions,” Htoo Khant Zaw said.
“If we had applied for permission to protest as mandated by Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, [the authorities] would tell us what slogans we could use and which route the protesters could take, and they would tell us not to deliver long speeches, so it does not make sense,” he added.
RFA contacted the police to inquire about the arrests, but an official from Kamayut Township Police Station said the police were not at liberty to answer questions on the matter.
During a news conference on Saturday, the government justified the internet shutdown in Chin and Rakhine states, saying it was for the benefit of the country. The government also said that access would not be restored while there is armed conflict in the region.
Ye Wai Phyo Aung, founder and research manager of Athan, a youth-led free speech advocacy group, told RFA that charging students for protesting against the internet shutdown was a “double violation of human rights.”
“We have seen so many cases of the government charging people who are merely practicing the right to freedom of expression and to criticize the wrongdoing of the government.”
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Khaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.