A court in Myanmar’s central city of Mandalay sentenced two antiwar activists to two months in jail on Tuesday for failing to obtain permission to hold a public demonstration during which they called on Myanmar officials to rescue civilians stuck in conflict zones in Kachin state where the national army is engaged in hostilities with an ethnic armed group.
Activists Aung Hmine San and Soe Moe Naing entered not-guilty pleas on charges of violating Article 19 of the country’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law during a previous hearing in Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court.
Police Officer Thein Naing from the township’s No. 8 police station arrested the two along with third individual, Poet Kalint, for participating in a 40-strong protest on May 6, called for an end to fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
On May 10, Poet Kalint received a one-month sentence in Obo prison, while Aung Hmine San and Soe Moe Naing were scheduled to appear in court on May 18, according to the rights group Fortify Rights.
“We were arrested unfairly, and we are not guilty of any charge,” Aung Hmine San told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing. “We didn’t collaborate with the court because, as we have already said, we don’t feel the judicial sector is free. The administration has interfered in it.”
The two are among the more than 50 activists who were arrested while participating in peaceful antiwar protests in Mandalay, Yangon, Kachin’s capital Myitkyina, and Bago region’s Pyay and Nattalin townships in south-central Myanmar, on April 30 and in May.
Most have been charged with violating Article 19, which requires demonstrators to obtain permission from local officials to hold marches or protests.
Three Myitkyina demonstrators meanwhile have been charged with criminal defamation for statements they made during rallies.
Intensified fighting this year in the long-running civil war between Myanmar forces and the KIA has displaced more than 7,400 civilians in 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.
“When we have war, young men have to fight in battles, and young women are raped, abused, and hurt,” said Ei Ei Moe, secretary of the youth political organization Generation Wave, who was among a group of activists charged under Article 19 for leading a 300-strong antiwar protest in the commercial capital Yangon on May 12.
“We want to stop war, and we want peace,” she said. “That’s why we have participated in the antiwar protests.”
‘Fighting needs to be stopped’
Ongoing civil wars, broken cease-fires, and the crisis in Rakhine state, where two crackdowns on Rohingya Muslims in October 2016 and August 2017 together displaced between 700,000 and 800,000 Rohingya, have stalled the Myanmar government’s efforts to bring warring factions to the negotiation table for peace talks.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who launched the 21st-Century Panglong Conference in August 2016, intended to hold talks every six months, but so far only two conferences have taken place, and one expected this month has been postponed.
Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the government should not take action against those who have tried to do something to stop war in the country and to forge peace.
“The truth is the fighting in Kachin and Shan states really needs to be stopped given that the government can’t hold third Panglong Conference, and there are many difficulties tin holding Union-level political talks as well,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Young people and others are trying to point out this truth by holding antiwar protests, and I see what they did as support for the country’s democratic transition and peace process,” he said. “Authorities have been charging many protesters, and it shows we have a lack of rule of law in the country.”
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.
Reported by Khaymani Win and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.