By MRATT KYAW THU and OLIVER SLOW
YANGON — A former child soldier who was jailed last year, after speaking with the media about his experience, has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and could face fresh charges for allegedly standing on a copy of the 2008 Constitution in protest against his detention.
Ko Aung Ko Htwe was handed the sentence at Dagon Seikkan Township Court on Tuesday, in a move that rights groups criticised as an example of the further erosion of freedom of expression in Myanmar.
The judge found Aung Ko Htwe guilty of contravening section 505(b) of the Penal Code, a vaguely worded clause related to incitement.
He will return to court on April 10 to hear charges related to section 7 of the Union Seal Law, which punishes “destruction or causing destruction of the whole or any part of the Union Seal”, for allegedly standing on the constitution during a protest. The maximum penalty for the charge is three years’ imprisonment, a K300,000 fine, or both.
His sister, Ma Nay Zar Tun, is also being charged for standing on the Constitution, but police say they are unable to find her.
Aung Ko Htwe was abducted at Yangon’s central railway station and forcibly recruited into the Tatmadaw in 2005, when he was just 15 years old, his family said. Two years later, he escaped with two others who robbed a motorbike owner. One of the three reportedly choked the owner to death, though Aung Ko Htway later said he was not involved.
The trio was charged with murder and found guilty; they all received the death sentence, even though Aung Ko Htwe was 16 at the time. In 2013, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Aung Ko Htwe was released in July 2017 after serving 10 years in jail.
Shortly after his release, he gave an interview to Radio Free Asia, in which he alleged that, while his case was being heard at a military court, he was tortured and forced to eat rice mixed with sand.
He was arrested last August, shortly after RFA published the article.
At a press conference in Yangon on Wednesday, another of his sisters, Ma Aye Zar Win, called on U Win Myint, who was elected president on the same day, to intervene in the case.
“We hope he will hear our voice,” Aye Zar Win said.
Activist Ko Aung Kyaw said that Aung Ko Htwe had “done some wrong things” because he was upset about being charged under section 505(b).
“Now he is being sued under this [Union Seal] law,” he said.
A photo published by DVB shows Aung Ko Htwe being dragged from the court by three police officers, as he defiantly makes a “peace” sign.
Rights groups have spoken out against the sentencing.
“To imprison a former child soldier for speaking about his experience would be an alarming new low for free speech in Myanmar,” Mr Tim Molyneux, child rights programme manager at Child Soldiers International, told Frontier by email. “It raises serious questions about the military’s commitment to ending child recruitment.”
Molyneux called on the military and the government to lend support to former child soldiers.
“The focus should not be on punishing victims, but on holding the perpetrators of child recruitment accountable, and cementing the progress the military has made in ending the use of child soldiers,” he said.
In 2012, Myanmar signed a UN Joint Action Plan committing to end the recruitment of children into the Tatmadaw. Since then, at least 849 children have been released from its ranks, Molyneux said.
“While positive steps have been taken, there is more to be done. Locking up Aung Ko Htwe will not help, the charges against him should be dropped,” he said.