Scores of anti-war protesters prosecuted across Myanmar

In the last few months, there have been continued attacks on fundamental freedoms in Myanmar with dozens being arrested and charged for peaceful protests or for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful expression. 

An end of mission report in July 2018, by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, reported that ‘the democratic space in Myanmar continues to sharply deteriorate’. Her report also highlighted concerns about the use of repressive laws to suppress political dissidents, youth, human rights defenders and activists and the arrest of demonstrators around the country.

Lee stated that that the government has made no progress or shown any real will to dismantle the system of discrimination in the country’s laws, policies and practices, to make northern Rakhine State safe for the Rohingya refugees to return from Bangladesh and that accountability for the atrocities committed is urgently needed.

Peaceful assembly

Anti-war protesters arrested and charged

In May 2018, scores of peaceful anti-war protesters, across major cities in Myanmar, were arrested, charged or convicted for violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Protesters called for Myanmar's military to ensure the protection and safe movement of civilians trapped by armed conflict in Kachin State, amid fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The conflict has displaced more than 100,000 civilians in Kachin state since fighting resumed in June 2011.

On 6th May, police arrested and charged two protesters (Myo Thu Htut and Myitta Oo) in Aung Lan Township, Magway Region. The next day, on 7th May, police charged four individuals (Kaung Htet Kyaw, Zeya, Ye Aung Aye, and Myo Saw) following peaceful protests on 6th May in Kyauktada Township, Yangon.

On 9th May, police arrested and charged three protesters (Aung Hmine San, Soe Moe, and Poet Kalint) following a peaceful gathering of more than 40 protesters on 6th May in Mandalay. The Chan Aye Tharzan Township Court sentenced Poet Kalint on 10th May to one month imprisonment in Obo prison for allegedly violating Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act for failing to notify the authorities. Aung Hmine San and Soe Moe were sentenced to two months jail on 22nd May.

On 9th May, Myitkyina Township Court convicted three activists (Lum Zawng, Sut Seng Htoi, and Labang Awng Mai) under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law following a peaceful gathering of several hundred protesters on 3rd and 4th May in Myitkyina Township, Kachin State. Each paid a fine of 30,000 Myanmar Kyat (around USD 20).

On 12th May, riot police in Yangon used batons to break up a protest. Authorities had refused permission for the protest and when police prevented some 300 people from marching they staged a sit-in, chanting anti-war slogans and waving light blue flags to symbolise their support for peace. At least 17 protesters were charged under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. They were subsequently released on bail pending trial. Article 20 criminalises violations of various unjustifiable requirements in the law for those participating in protests.

According to Ko Tin Htut Paing, one of those arrested during the clashes, some of the demonstrators were punched by a group of men in plainclothes man beside the police van, as police officers watched.

If convicted the activists could be sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and fined 10,000 Myanmar Kyat (USD 7). Those charged under the law for the second time may face a harsher sentence of up to three months’ imprisonment and a 30,000 Myanmar Kyat (USD 20) fine.

On 16th May, three anti-war activists were charged with criminal defamation for leading an anti-war protest in Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar's Kachin state. About 5,000 people had protested in Myitkyina on 30th April 2018. Three days later, around 300 people renewed the protest and staged their protest in a short-lived, sit-in camp in the city.

On 31st May, eight students were arrested for their participation in an anti-war protest in Myanmar’s Bago region held on 6th May 2018. Two of those arrested, Yan Paing Htet and Sit Myat Min, were charged with violating Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act. The eight arrested were taken into custody in Pyay township in Bago, and are members of the Basic Education Students Union students’ group.

Youth Activists Sued Over Aung San Statue Protest

At least sixteen ethnic Karenni youth activists were sued on 11th July for organising a protest against plans to erect a statue of late independence hero General Aung San in the Karenni State capital, Loikaw.

About 1,000 local Karenni marched against the project in Loikaw on 3rd July. Using excessive force, the police cracked down on the protest and allegedly tasered and beat protesters. 16 of the youth activists who organised the protest were informed subsequently that they were being sued by the Loikaw Township administrator under articles 19 and 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which regulates protests.

Eleven of the 16 activists were also sued earlier in the month at the Loikaw Township Court for incitement under Article 505 (b) and (c) of the Penal Code for distributing pamphlets opposing the statue ahead of the protest. The incitement charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law carry a maximum one-year sentence.

The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor previously, proposed amendments to the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law introduced in February 2018, would restrict people’s freedom of expression further, sparking concerns that they could be exploited to stifle political dissent. The bill was passed by the House of Nationalities (Upper House) on 7th March 2018 and has been sent to the House of Representatives (Lower House).

In July 2018, the NGO Progressive Voice issued a report entitled Time to Hear Our Voices: Freedom of Assembly and Youth Peace Movement in Myanmar” highlighting shortcomings of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law. The briefing paper shows that the law continues to be used to arbitrarily charge and arrest peaceful protesters while retaining the assumption that assemblies are to be tightly controlled and minimised rather than facilitated and protected.

The report also examined the additional discrimination and harassment faced by female human rights defenders and activists. Many of the organisers of the recent protests in Myitkyina and Yangon were young women who experienced discrimination and harassment including from the police when they submitted the required notification through when they were arrested and charged; from ultra-nationalists and on social media; and at times from their colleagues within civil society.

Association

Ethnic NGO worker detained under Unlawful Association Act

On 6th April 2018, authorities in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state arrested and detained Min Sign, an ethnic Kachin activist, for violating Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Association Act, which prohibits involvement with an unlawful organisation. The 1908 Unlawful Associations Act is often used by the Myanmar Army to arbitrarily imprison people from ethnic minority and conflict-affected areas.

Min Sign who is from the Machanbaw township and leads a civil society organisation called Nang Shani, was arrested for allegedly having links to an ethno-nationalist fighter from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and is now jailed in Putao township pending trial.

The KIA has engaged in skirmishes with the Myanmar army since 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down. The latest round of fighting began in early 2018 when soldiers launched air strikes in the Tanaing gold and amber mining region, an area currently controlled by the KIA.

Kachin Pastors released

On 17th April 2018, two Kachin pastors Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng were released from Lashio prison in Myanmar’s Shan State following a Presidential amnesty.

The two men had been detained since December 2016 in connection with their role in organising a visit by journalists to Monekoe town, northern Shan State, to show the destruction allegedly caused by Myanmar Army airstrikes.

They were charged under Article 17(1) of Myanmar’s 1908 Unlawful Association Act and the 2012 Import and Export Law. Amnesty International believes that these charges were politically motivated and linked to their role in reporting alleged human rights abuses by the Myanmar military.

On 27th October 2017, they were each found guilty and sentenced to two years and three months in prison. Dumdaw Nawng Lat was sentenced to an additional two years in prison for “defamation” under Section 500 of Myanmar’s Penal Code in connection with a newspaper interview where he discussed the alleged airstrikes.

Expression

Reuters journalists charged for breaching Official Secrets Act

On 9th July 2018, Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged two jailed Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings. Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, informing the judge they had “followed journalistic ethics.”

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, the two journalists were arrested on 12th December 2017 under the 1923 Official Secrets Act. The colonial-era Official Secrets Act carries with it up to 14 years in prison for anyone who obtains, records or communicates documents or information for any purpose “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.

The journalists had been investigating a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine State against the Rohingya minority that began on 25th August 2017. In the ensuing violence, hundreds of women, men and children have been killed and more than 700,000 people have fled into Bangladesh. The military has also been accused of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, along with the systematic burning and destruction of hundreds of Rohingya villages.

The two journalists were detained after being handed some rolled up papers by two policemen there were invited to meet for dinner in the north of Yangon. 

In April 2018, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter. After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline by having spoken to Wa Lone, and his family was evicted from police housing

Government critic arrested under sedition law

On 14th July, Myanmar police arrested vocal government critic and human rights defender, Ngar Min Swe. A police officer at the station in Hlaing township, where the arrest took place, said Ngar Min Swe was taken to Yangon's Western District court where he was later charged with sedition

He has been arrested under section 124A of the penal code, which states that anyone who incites disaffection towards government "shall be punished with life imprisonment."

Ngar Min Swe, has made wide-ranging criticisms of the current government, including over the crisis in western Rakhine state where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled an army crackdown. He is also being investigated separately in a case filed against him in 2017 under the telecommunications law for a Facebook post he wrote about Suu Kyi. He faces up to two years in prison if convicted.

University students protest controls on campus 

On 21st May 2018, Myanmar’s Department of Higher Education, which administers colleges and universities under the Ministry of Education, issued an order that students must get permission from rectors and academic presidents to hold events and must provide the titles of talks, the names and biographies of speakers, and the number of invitees and expected attendees.

Student groups in Myanmar have objected to these new restrictions which claim will prevent them from holding political lectures, discussions, and panels.

Min Hein Khant, a member of the university’s student union said:

“If university students can’t hold any political activities under the democratic government, then we are worried about whether we are returning to a dictatorship under which we are not allowed to participate in any political activity,”
Journalists claim media freedoms are declining

According to the findings of a survey released by Free Expression Myanmar on 2nd May 2018, journalists in Myanmar believe that their freedom has declined over the past year and that legal, physical and psychological violence towards the media is increasing.

A coalition of organisations compiled the views of around 200 journalists nationwide between December 2017 and April 2018, on a range of issues around their work. They found that the government, including the military, is seen as the main cause of deteriorating freedoms. Journalists say there is little evidence that the government or the courts are trying to address either violence towards the media or the decline in freedom of expression.

Journalists ranked the Electronic Transactions Law as the greatest threat to freedom of expression (19 percent) followed by the Official Secrets Act (17 percent), the Telecommunications Law (14 percent), the Constitution (13 percent) and the Unlawful Associations Act (13 percent). In the Penal Code, they viewed the section on sedition as the most threatening (38 percent), while ranking defamation (22 percent) and insulting religion (19 percent) second and third.

Free Expression Myanmar urged the government, including the military, to conduct an open and inclusive consultation with journalists, to establish an action plan to improve media freedom. The report also recommended a separate but interlinked public consultation on ending state control of media, including military-owned press, and called on the government to remove all barriers to the media’s access to conflict areas.

Coalition launches website to track abuse of the Telecommunications Law

A coalition of more than 20 local and international groups launched the #SayNoTo66(d) website to track and raise awareness about online defamation cases and strengthen their push for reforming the Telecommunications Law. It was also developed to make their findings easily available and counter disinformation and inaccuracies about the issue.

Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law provides for up to three years in prison for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.” The law has opened the door to a wave of criminal prosecutions of individuals for peaceful communications on social media platform, Facebook and has increasingly been used to stifle criticism of the authorities.