A lawyer for two Kachin activists charged by the military with criminal defamation for leading an antiwar protest in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, during which demonstrators called for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones, will appeal to the regional Supreme Court to drop the cases.
The Myanmar army’s Northern Regional Command filed lawsuits against Lum Zawng, 29, and Zau Jat, 41, and a third activist Nang Pu, 47, under Section 500 of the Penal Code for statements they made at a press conference and peaceful rally in Myitkyina on April 30 and May 1.
They each face up to two years in prison if found guilty.
Around 5,000 people protested in Myitkyina on April 30, followed three days later by roughly 300 others who renewed the demonstration and staged a short-lived sit-in camp in the city to demand an end to hostilities between government soldiers and the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic militia, and the rescue of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.
Mone Seng Tu, the attorney for Lum Zawng, himself a lawyer, and Zau Jat, chairman of the Kachin National Social Development Foundation, said he will file an appeal with the state’s highest court.
“The charge against them is just an accusation,” he said. “What they said was not defamation. That’s why I have prepared to file an appeal with the Kachin State Supreme Court that the charges be dropped. I will submit the appeal tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
Nang Pu, a founding member of the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, a Kachin community-based organization dedicated to women’s empowerment, was granted bail on Monday at Myitkyina Township Court.after posting a 500,000-kyat (U.S. $367) bond.
The trio’s next hearing is scheduled for May 28 when the plaintiff, Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Oo, will testify.
Also on Monday, Fortify Rights and the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) called on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally withdraw all charges against the three activists.
“It is not a crime to want the Myanmar military to end attacks on innocent people,” Moon Nay Li, KWAT’s general secretary, said in a statement. “All these activists did was speak the truth, and they’re facing years in prison because of it.”
Moon May Li also called for the situation to be brought before the International Criminal Court.
‘Sensitive to criticism’
An uptick in fighting this year in the long-running civil war between the KIA and the Myanmar army 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 between the two groups and human rights violations have displaced more than 100,000 civilians since June 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down.
“The Myanmar military is so sensitive to criticism that the mere mention of their crimes elicits prosecutions,” Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, said in a statement. “The military is trying to shut down any conversation that might better inform the public about atrocities in Kachin state, and they’re blocking efforts that would lead to accountability.”
The three Kachin activists are among the more than 50 activists nationwide charged for participating in antiwar activities this month, most of whom have been accused of not obtaining official permission to hold public demonstrations, as required by Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
About 300 youths participated in a protest on May 12 in Yangon during which they called for an end to fighting in Kachin state and the rescue of those displaced by the clashes, some of whom have been trapped in conflict zones for weeks.
The Yangon protest ended in fistfights between some demonstrators and police, who charged 17 with violating Article 19.
Following a poetry reading ceremony for peace at Maha Bandula Park in Yangon on May 14, organizer Khant Min Htet, poet Shwe Kyae Moe, and demonstrator Zayar Lwin, who gave a speech at the event, were charged under Article 19 for not obtaining official permission from local officials to hold the ceremony.
Police Officer Myo Thet from Kyauttada Township Police Station who brought charges against them, will testify at a hearing on May 29.
“The judge asked me if I am guilty under Article 19,” said Zayar Lwin. “I responded that I am not guilty. I really believe I am not guilty. He also asked me whether I would apply for bail or not. I told him I would not apply for bail, but I promised him I would appear at the hearings.”
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 Wai Mar Tun and Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.