A court in Myanmar's western Rakhine state on Thursday ordered 10 activists jailed for three months each for participating in a demonstration against a China-backed petroleum pipeline project, drawing outrage among villagers opposed to the venture.
About 300 people from 20 villages mobbed the court in Kyaukpyu Township, demanding the release of the activists who had joined hundreds in April in protesting against the Shwe Project over inadequate compensation and demands that its developer provide better transportation infrastructure and higher salaries for local workers.
The 10 were charged with demonstrating and holding a peaceful march without a permit on Rakhine state's Maday Island, the westernmost site of the U.S. $2.5 billion Shwe Project, which includes a deep sea port, natural gas from Myanmar’s offshore reserves, and overland oil and gas pipelines from the state to China.
They were convicted under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, a much criticized legislation which requires a permit for demonstrations and which rights groups say is being used by the government to silence critics even as Myanmar undertakes democratic reforms after decades of brutal military rule.
The villagers said they went ahead with the protests in April after they applied twice for a permit and were denied each time.
On Thursday, the protesting villagers demanded the release of the 10, saying they cannot be singled out from a group of 400 people who had demonstrated on April 18.
"All villagers from Maday Island came and demanded that the 10 be released. If not, the authorities should arrest all the villagers who had protested," a villager, Ko Nyi Nge, told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"They shouted [slogans] in front of the court, saying they won’t go home if these 10 men are not released."
About 100 security forces and several firefighters ringed the court but did not act against the protesters.
Htein Lin, a lawyer for the jailed protesters, said although the authorities had identified the 10 as ringleaders of the protests, no one came forward to testify that they had indeed led the demonstrations.
"Nobody witnessed these 10 people leading the protest," he said, vowing to appeal against the sentence on Monday.
Rights groups have expressed concern over environmental and socioeconomic effects from the Shwe Project as well as issues related to takeovers of land from residents that remain unresolved.
They have called on the authorities to drop the charges against the 10 protesters, saying the provisions of the law under which they were charged do not conform with international human rights standards.
“Peaceful protesters should not face prison time for exercising their basic rights,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, said. “By jailing peaceful protesters, the Burmese [Myanmar] government is creating a new class of political prisoners."
"No genuinely reformist leadership would oversee the prosecution of people who peacefully challenge the state’s development plans,” he added.
The Shwe Project is a joint venture between Beijing’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar’s national petroleum company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).
CNPC completed the U.S. $14.2 million, 800-kilometer (500-mile) gas pipeline and began delivering natural gas to southern China’s Yunnan province in July, despite long-held objections from critics.
The state-run petroleum giant is nearing completion of a pipeline along the same route to transport oil purchased in the Middle East to China via Myanmar, in what officials connected to the project say shortens a distance that originally would have included passage through the Malacca Strait.
Two local rights groups have launched surveys to monitor potential adverse impacts of the controversial petroleum pipelines passing through 21 townships in Myanmar and plan to deliver their findings to the country’s parliament, international organizations, and project investors.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Thu for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.