By YE MON | FRONTIER
YANGON — Three Kachin youth activists who led anti-war protests earlier this year in Myitkyina were each sentenced on Friday to six months in prison and each fined K500,000 for ‘defaming’ the Myanmar armed forces under Section 500 of the Penal Code.
Fellow Kachin activists, international human rights groups and the European Union delegation have decried the decision by Myitkyina Township judge U Tu Ja as an attack on freedom of speech and assembly. Lawyer for the defendants Doi Bu said an appeal would be lodged with the Myitkyina District court.
The criminal defamation charges were sought by army Lieutenant-Colonel Myo Min Oo from the Northern Region Command soon after activists from the Kachin Youth Movement, a group formed in response to an escalating civil war between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army, led an anti-war march with several thousand participants in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, on April 30, followed by an occupy-style protest in central Myitkyina the following days.
A key demand was the protection and safe passage of civilians trapped in the midst of intense fighting and shelling in the amber-mining hub of Tanai Township in April. Conflict had also spread to Hpakant, Injangyan, Momauk and Waingmaw townships in Kachin State in one of the most deadly flare-ups in the war since a 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and the Tatmadaw broke down in 2011.
The activists Nang Pu, Lum Zawng and Zau Jat, who were allowed bail during the trial, have now been sent to Myitkyina Prison. The plaintiff Myo Min Oo was not present at the court on Friday and no reason was given for his absence.
All three are prominent young members of Kachin civil society. Nang Pu directs the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, Zau Jat chairs of the Kachin National Social Development Association and Lum Zawng is a lawyer engaged in social issues.
Doi Bu, lawyer to Nang Pu, told Frontier that the judge told the court the three activists had “insulted” the military by raising the plight of the civilians trapped in the jungle by the conflict in April. “They should be freed today because they were just [demonstrating] for the people,” she said.
The judge also said they would each have to serve an additional six months if they failed to pay the fine. Section 500 of the Penal Code imposes a maximum sentence of two years for defamation, which it does not define.
Doi Bu said the three would not pay the fine until the opportunity for appeal had been exhausted.
Lum Zawng told reporters at the court after the verdict that the government had chosen to jail people who have been working for the people, and who are not guilty of anything, and he accused the military of influencing the court.
“I would like to ask the government, how will this help the peace process to succeed?” he said.
Sut Seng Htoi, a leading member of the Kachin Youth Movement, reiterated to Frontier that her colleagues had merely “demanded that the government rescue the civilians trapped by fighting.” She said the verdict “will make people fear the judicial system in this country.”
In a statement released on Facebook on Friday, the EU Delegation in Myanmar said it “deeply regrets the court’s decision and calls on the authorities to review the sentence”. It said the verdict was “worrying news for civil society in Myanmar. Protests for peace and for saving people trapped by violent conflict should not be criminalized.”
UK-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the verdict. Amnesty’s Director of Crisis Response Tirana Hassan said, “Today’s appalling verdict against three peaceful activists shows the government’s determination to silence any criticism of their actions in this deadly conflict – and repress any peaceful opposition to the military whatsoever.”
Later on Friday, Myitkyina Township police sued Sut Seng Htoi and fellow activists Seng Hkawn Awng and Brang Mai who demonstrated against the decision outside the courtroom for staging an authorised protest under Section 19 of Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, according to the Kachin Youth Movement committee.
In May, soon after the demonstrations, Lum Zawng and Sut Seng Htoi had been ordered to pay K30,000 each after the Myitkyina Township found them of guilty of violating the same section of the peaceful assembly law, but the Tatmadaw plaintiff continued to seek Lum Zawng’s prosecution under the Penal Code.