Myanmar authorities prosecuting activists and critics despite the COVID-19 pandemic

Myanmar authorities prosecuting activists and critics despite the COVID-19 pandemic
Activist Naw Ohn Hla, activist Saw Tha Phoe, poet U Saw Wai and Peacock Generation activists (clockwise from top left)

On 23rd January 2020, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to take emergency measures to prevent genocide of the Rohingya. In a unanimously-ruled order issued by a panel of 17 judges the court upheld the provisions of the 1948 Genocide Convention - saying Myanmar had "caused irreparable damage to the rights of the Rohingya". The order follows Gambia’s November 2019 application to the court alleging that abuses by Myanmar’s military in Rakhine State against the Rohingya violate the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and urgently seeking provisional measures. The ICJ provisional measures order is legally binding on the parties.

In March 2020, Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the status of human rights in Myanmar. presented her last report to the Human Rights Council at the end of her six-year mandate. She highlighted concerns that Myanmar’s civilian government had “done too little to promote democratic rule”. She said there were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed, repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military. She said rather than tackle legislative reform, the civilian government had passed even more repressive measures that had “stifled” freedom of expression.

On 13th April 2020, Amnesty International released a new briefing, “I will not surrender: The criminalization of human rights defenders and activists in Myanmar”, highlighting cases of human rights defenders and civil society activists who have been arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned in the last 18 months.

In recent months the assault on civic freedoms has persisted. A Karen environmental activist has been charged for raising concerns about a cement factory, while students and activists have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for protesting. Further, three activists are facing prison terms for calling for constitutional reforms, two journalists were detained and ill-treated at the Myawady border and street artists have been arrested for a mural on the coronavirus (COVID-19). There has also been a fourth conviction against satirical performance group the Peacock Generation while there continues to be low COVID-19 awareness in Rakhine due to an internet blackout.


Karen environmental activist facing charges for raising concerns about cement factory

In March 2020, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders issued an urgent appeal against the judicial harassment of Saw Tha Phoe, a Karen environmental activist and the Campaign Coordinator of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

According to the reports, on the night of 6th March 2020, police in the Karen State issued an arrest warrant against Saw Tha Phoe and attempted to arrest him at his house. He was not at home at the time and police ended up searching his premises and questioning his family members.

The arrest warrant against Saw Tha Phoe was issued following the Hpa-an General Administration Department filing a complaint against him under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, for “disturbing public tranquillity” by causing public fear or alarm. He faces up to two years imprisonment if he is convicted.

Human rights groups in Myanmar say that the charges against him are believed to be in retaliation for his efforts to raise awareness of the environmental impact of a cement factory. On 17th January 2020, Saw Tha Phoe, monks and local villagers participated in a traditional Karen prayer ceremony in Myaingkalay District, Kayin State, focused on pollution from the Myaingkalay cement factory.

The cement factory is operated by the Myanmar Economic Corporation, one of two principal military-owned conglomerates. Local residents have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of the factory in recent years, including air and water pollution.

Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme said:

“Diligently and peacefully advocating for clean air and water is a public service, not a crime. The charges against Saw Tha Phoe are absurd. Rather than harassing environmental activists, the government should be listening to their concerns.”

Peaceful assembly

Students prosecuted for protesting against internet shutdown

In February 2020, nine student protesters were arrested and charged under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for organising and staging a protest against the government’s suspension of internet services in Rakhine and Chin states. On 22nd February 2020, students from the East Yangon University gathered in Hledan, the centre of Yangon city, to call for the lifting of the ongoing suspension of internet services and allowing media access to the region.

As previously documented, since June 2019, the government has imposed an internet blackout in parts of conflict-ridden Rakhine and Chin states. In September 2019, the authorities lifted the internet ban in five townships but reinstated it in February 2020.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) released a statement, strongly condemning the charges brought against the students and called on the Myanmar government to drop the charges and reinstate internet access in all townships in the Rakhine and Chin states.

According to Amnesty International, seven of the activists were found guilty on 25th March by the Kamayut Township and sentenced to one month in prison. Six were released on 3rd April and the seventh was due to be released on 13th April. Two other activists charged for the protest are currently in hiding, fearful of arrest.

Four activists jailed for protesting land grab

On 17th January 2020, the Myawaddy Township court in Karen State sentenced four activists – Naw Ohn Hla, Maung U, U Nge (aka) Hsan Hlaing and Sandar Myint – to one month in prison after finding them guilty of protesting without authorisation under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. The law officially only requires notification of a protest but in practice, authorities treat the notification requirement as a request for permission. It has frequently been used to target peaceful activists, in particular those campaigning for justice for communities affected by human rights violations and abuses.

Police charged the four activists after they participated in a peaceful protest organised by residents of the Shwe Mya Sandi housing project in Karen State in April 2019. Residents had been protesting against the demolition of their homes in February 2019, after the government declared that the land used for the project had been acquired unlawfully. The court sentenced each of them to one month in prison.


Three activists facing prison for calling for constitutional reforms

Three activists - U Kyi Myint, U Saw Wai and former Myanmar army captain Nay Myo Zin - are facing prison sentences for giving speeches criticising the military and calling for constitutional reform at a peaceful rally in Kawthaung town in Tanintharyi Region back in April 2019. On 23rd January 2020, a court in Tanintharyi Region issued arrest warrants against the three prominent political activists.

According to Amnesty International, human rights lawyer Kyi Myint called for the Constitution to be amended to protect the people of Myanmar and prevent the military from staging a coup. Saw Wai, a well-known poet, recited a poem asking the audience to chant “reject evil laws”. The current NLD-led government has attempted to amend the Constitution to reduce the military’s role in politics, but these attempts have so far failed.

More than six months later, on 17th October 2019, Lt. Col Zaw Zaw of the Myanmar military’s Coastal Command filed charges against the three men under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code which carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment for anyone convicted of making, publishing or circulating statements, rumours or reports intended to cause military officers to mutiny, or to fail in or disregard their duties.

One of the accused, Nay Myo Zin is already serving a year in prison for calling the Constitution undemocratic. The other two are out on bail.

In January 2020, Amnesty International released a statement regarding the prosecution, highlighting that they believed it was politically motivated to persecute the activists.

Journalists detained and ill-treated at the border

On 4th March 2020, two journalists were detained at the Myawady border area. Naw Betty Han of Frontier Myanmar and Ko Mar Naw, a photojournalist from Myanmar Times had travelled to the Myawady border to cover a story.

According to Naw Betty Han, the two were walking near a bridge at Border Gate 1 in Myawaddy and taking a picture of heavy machines building a new casino when they were detained by the ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces (BGF). They forced the two journalists to cover their faces with black masks and drove them to a rubber plantation. There, armed men wearing fatigues with BGF logos on their armbands sat the reporters on the ground and interrogated them. Mar Naw said the men hit him several times and kicked his face until his nose bled while others tried to cut his long hair, and another held a bayonet near the journalist’s neck.

Naw Betty Han said that the BGF ordered her and Ko Mar Naw to erase the photographs taken at the border and detained them in a cell after confiscating their cameras. At one point she was slapped by the guards.

The Karen State-based BGF, formed in 2010, is a splinter group of the defunct Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and is backed by the military. The group operates businesses in the area, including casinos, and is involved in building the Chinese-backed Shwe Kokko development project.

Karen BGF head Colonel Saw Chit Thu told The Irrawaddy that their soldiers detained Naw Betty Han because she took pictures of the border gate. They were released the following day.

Street artists arrested for mural on COVID-19

Three street artists were arrested on 3rd March 2020 for painting a mural that raises awareness about the coronavirus pandemic. The artists, Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai and Naw Htun Aung, were charged with violating Myanmar’s law criminalising speech that “insults” religion.

According to Human Rights Watch, the three were arrested after Buddhist hardliners complained that the mural, portraying a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, looked like a Buddhist monk. It was painted on a wall in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The artists posted a photo of their completed mural on social media in the first week of April but painted over it after they were bombarded by hate speech online.

The deputy director of Kachin State’s Religious Office formally filed the charges under article 295A of the Penal Code, which criminalises speech that “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings … insults or attempts to insult” religion or religious beliefs. The three face up to two years in prison.

Fourth conviction against satirical performance group

In February 2020, members of a performance group received further convictions. On 17th February three members of the group – Kay Khine Tun, Paing Phyo Min and Su Yadanar Myint – were convicted of “online defamation” at Botahtaung Township Court and sentenced to six months in prison under Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act for posting photos and videos and live-streaming performances on Facebook. Four other members were acquitted.

As previously documented, in April and May 2019, police arrested seven members of the Peacock Generation ‘Thangyat’ troupe for allegedly criticising the military in a satirical performance which was live-streamed on Facebook. ‘Thangyat’ is a form of slam poetry traditionally performed during Myanmar’s April New Year holiday that has long been a vehicle for humorous criticism of everything from politics to social behaviour. They were denied bail during their trial and detained in Insein prison.

In October 2019, five members of the Peacock Generation poetry troupe were sentenced under article 505(a) of the penal code to one year each. In November 2019, six members of the group were again convicted and sentenced to one year in prison under Section 505(a), this time at Yangon’s Botahtaung Township Court. A seventh performer, Nyein Chan Soe, was acquitted of the charge. On 11th December 2019, four members of the group were given additional six-month jail terms after being found guilty of “online defamation” under Section 66(d) at Mayangon Township Court.

Low COVID-19 awareness in Rakhine due to internet blackout

In late March 2020, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that residents of Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state had been conducting business as usual and holding public gatherings as they have been deprived by an internet blackout of information about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In mid-March the President’s Office banned the holding of public gatherings. After Myanmar announced the first two confirmed cases of the coronavirus on 23rd March, the government issued an order requiring all Myanmar nationals and foreigners travelling to the country to spend 14 days in a quarantine facility upon arrival.

According to Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the state’s Arakan National Party, in nearly all townships in Rakhine state, returning migrant workers don’t understand the importance of remaining in quarantine for two weeks.

Human rights groups have been demanding that the government immediately lift restrictions on mobile internet communications in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in Chin State. They have called on the government to release publicly the justification for the internet shutdown and all information related to the process by which these restrictions were imposed.

Police drop charges against editor charged under Counter-Terrorism Law

On 30th March 2020, police arrested and charged Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, under Myanmar’s overly broad Counter-Terrorism Law for an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson.

On 28th March, the government designated the insurgent Arakan Army a terrorist organisation under the Counter-Terrorism Law and an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. On 27th March, Nay Myo Lin had interviewed the Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha and broadcast the interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped.”

Subsequently, the Mandalay Special Branch police filed a criminal complaint against Nay Myo Lin under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. Section 50(a) of the law authorises a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment for, among other actions, “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public.” Section 52(a) authorises a sentence of three to seven years in prison for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”

However, on 9th April, Nay Myo Lin was freed. He told Reuters that police had told him they would not prosecute the case under the Terrorism Act, but that he had been asked to sign an agreement vowing to cooperate with any further questioning and had done so.

According to Human Rights Watch, in recent weeks the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on journalists, including several editors. These actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.