Myanmar police have arrested 14 university student activists for protesting over the armed conflict in western Rakhine state, while about 30 others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest, an official from a student union umbrella organization said Tuesday.
The students, most of whom are members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), have staged anti-war demonstrations and posted stickers on utility poles in several cities since Sept. 10, including Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay, Pakokku in Magway region, and Monywa in Sagaing region.
The ABSFU is the umbrella organization for all student unions in Myanmar, advocating for academic freedoms and student rights throughout the Southeast Asian country.
The students demanded an end to the war between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) that has raged in northern Rakhine and in Paletwa township of next-door Chin state since late 2018. Nearly 300 civilians have died, more than 640 have been injured, and 220,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
They also called for an end to a government-ordered internet service blackout in the conflict-affected townships.
Among those arrested are three students from Yadanabon University, three from Meiktila University, three from Monywa University, one from Pakokku University, one from Kanbalu AGTI, two from Pyi University, and one from Co-operative College. The universities are all located in Mandalay, Sagaing, Bago, and Magway regions.
Students from Pakokku University in Magway region were arrested on Sept. 27 while they were at a student union office on campus, said ABSFU vice chairman Aung Pyae Sone Phyo from the University of Education in Yangon.
The Co-operative College student was picked up the same day, while the pair of students from Pyi University and were arrested on Monday, he said.
Police also apprehended two students from Meiktila University at a teashop and two others from Yadanabon University while they were campaigning, Aung Pyae Sone Phyo said.
“Four police trucks came onto the Pakokku University campus and arrested the students without asking permission from the rector,” he told RFA. “Others were taken from their houses by police in civilian clothes.”
The students, who are being detained at the No. 6 Police Station in Mandalay, attended their first hearing on Monday on charges of violating Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, Sections 505(a and b) of the Penal Code, and Section 25 of Natural Disaster Management Law.
Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law entails criminal liability for organizing or participating in an assembly for which notice has not been given to local officials. It carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison, a fine, or both.
The Penal Code charges are often used to stifle political dissent of peaceful protestors by criminalizing the use of statements and reports with the intent to induce soldiers to rebel or fail in their duties, or to induce someone to commit an offense against the state or disrupt public tranquility. Each charge carries punishments of up to two years in jail, a fine, or both.
Rights groups have criticized the statute as incompatible with democracy, saying its provisions are vaguely written and could be used arbitrarily to restrict freedom of expression.
Section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law, which covers the willful violation of Myanmar’s current COVID-related restrictions on public gatherings, carries a penalty of imprisonment up to three years and a possible fine.
‘They don’t want peace’
Swam Pyae Tun, a Meiktila University student who went into hiding to avoid arrest, said police apprehended the protesting students, but they overlooked arresting supporters of political parties who also have violated government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings by campaigning in the run-up to Myanmar’s Nov. 8 elections.
“We demanded that they stop the civil war because we want peace,” he told RFA. “The police didn’t arrest thousands of people who participated in the election campaign, but they arrested and charged us under these acts.”
“The government and the military arrested us for demanding that they stop the civil war, and it means they don’t want peace,” he added.
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said the arrests of the students were not appropriate actions for the government to take.
“It’s not good to arrest students on charges of unlawful assembly, and the government need not take action against them under such strict laws,” he said.
RFA could not reach Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay for comment.
Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said he believed the students had been arrested for using words or phrases on their posters or in the slogans they shouted that could be considered an offense against the state or a disruption of public tranquility.
Earlier in September, authorities in Rakhine state arrested three students from the Rakhine Student Union for ignoring restrictions on large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic by participating in a protest against the Myanmar government’s internet service ban.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.