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Burma: Release Ten Arakanese Activists, Amend Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law

By Shwe Gas Movement, Burma Partnership, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma and Fortify Rights International  •  September 27, 2013

Targeted Prosecutions of Peaceful Protesters Continue

The government of Burma should immediately release ten Arakanese activists convicted of violating Burma’s Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession after protesting a Chinese-led natural gas project in western Burma, four nongovernmental organizations said today. On 26 September, the ten activists were sentenced to three months in prison for their participation in a peaceful protest against adverse impacts of the transnational gas project on 18 April on Maday Island in Burma’s western Arakan State. The Shwe Gas Movement, Burma Partnership, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma and Fortify Rights International called today for the immediate release of the activists and for the urgent amendment of the controversial law.

“No one should be imprisoned for exercising their human right to peaceful assembly,” said Wong Aung, Coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement. “The right of assembly is crucial, especially since there are no effective legal mechanisms available for voicing concerns over land loss and labor complaints.”

The ten villagers were charged with violating Article 18 of the controversial assembly law after protesting negative impacts of the Shwe Gas Project without a permit. The same law has been used to arrest and prosecute scores of other activists in Burma in the last year, including Naw Ohn Hla, a prominent Burmese activist who was arrested on 13 August 2013 for leading a peaceful protest against the controversial Chinese-led Letpadaung copper mine in Burma’s Sagaing Region. The law requires a written permit from local authorities for any gathering of more than five people. Violations are punishable by up to a year in prison.

“This repressive law has been selectively enforced to target activists who highlight detrimental impacts of high-profile foreign investments,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights International. “The permit-granting provisions in the law are inconsistent with international human rights standards and should be immediately amended.”

On four occasions Arakanese activist Tun Kyi, 33, sought permission from local authorities on Maday Island to protest the negative impacts of the Shwe Gas Project. The authorities denied each request on the grounds of Section 144 of the Burmese Penal Code, which established a state of emergency in Kyaukphyu Township, Arakan State, for over one year, granting the military, local government, and police sweeping powers. The emergency law was invoked in response to ethno-religious violence in Arakan State that began in June 2012. It has since been frequently leveraged by state authorities to prohibit public gatherings, despite the fact that no violence occurred on Maday Island.

After being repeatedly denied a permit—twice in December 2012 and again in March and April 2013—Tun Kyi and the other Maday Islanders decided to proceed with the demonstration, originally scheduled for 11 April. On 10 April, riot police arrived on Maday Island, visited homes and interrogated villagers for their suspected involvement in the protest plans. Tun Kyi and other community leaders negotiated with the local authorities to postpone the protest, which they rescheduled per a spoken agreement with the authorities that an unpermitted peaceful protest would not be met with harsh consequences.

On 18 April 2013, over 400 Arakanese villagers met at Ywar Ma monastery on Maday Island, marched to the offices of the China National Petroleum Corporation and demanded an immediate halt to the Shwe Gas Project. The authorities responded with swift and severe action. Tun Kyi and nine other organizers were detained, questioned, and subjected to a protracted series of court hearings, effectively preventing further acts of resistance.

“Companies operating in Burma should adopt ‘do no harm’ policies and practices. This is best done by adhering to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including taking steps such as consulting with local communities, conducting adequate social and environmental impact assessments of development projects, and offering fair compensation to local communities,” said Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership.

The Shwe Gas Project is a Chinese-backed development designed to transport natural gas and crude oil to southern China. Its two pipelines begin at Kyaukphyu and end in Kunming, China, cutting across Arakan State, Magwe Region, Mandalay Region, and northern Shan State, where deadly armed conflict continues between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army, as well as numerous local militias. The Arakanese protesters demanded postponement of the Shwe Gas Project until local communities were guaranteed fair compensation for confiscated lands, electrical service for all homes and public buildings on Maday Island, infrastructure development, and fairly paid, secure job opportunities for local people. Similar complaints have been voiced in all areas affected by the pipeline, but this was the first mass protest against the Shwe Gas Project ever held in Burma.

The accused were initially arraigned and released on bail on 13 May, and have since been called to court hearings thirteen times. During the course of these prolonged procedures, opening ceremonies were held for the now-completed Shwe Gas pipeline and the government announced an open tender for a Special Economic Zone in Kyaukphyu Township.

“The authorities have used multiple court hearings to intimidate and attempt to weaken the resolve of activists in Arakan State and elsewhere, all while pushing their economic agenda forward, whereas in fact they should be protecting the legitimate human rights work of such activists, in accordance with international norms on the protection of human rights defenders,” said Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership. “The use of martial law has provided an additional measure for the authorities to prevent dissent. These men were convicted of ‘unlawful’ activities, but they have done nothing wrong and should be released immediately.”

On a 15 July visit to London, Burma’s President Thein Sein said all political prisoners in Burma would be freed by the end of the year. Since then, numerous activists throughout the country have faced arrest for exercising their human rights.

“It’s difficult to take the president at his word when the authorities are so busy creating new political prisoners,” said Khin Ohmar. “If President Thein Sein is serious about reform, he’ll release all political prisoners immediately and initiate amendments to the assembly law so that there aren’t any new ones.”

“This verdict, and not the actions of the accused, is unlawful and a clear violation of human rights,” said Aung Myo Min of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. “We demand their immediate release and amnesty.”

The sentenced activists are: Ko Tun Kyi, U Maung Maung Myint, Ko Myo Naing, Ko Yin Hla, Ko San Aye, Ko Mg Mg Soe, Ko Aung Myint Soe, U Maung Pru Thee, U Tun Khaing Nu, and U Tin Oo Kyaw.

For more information, please contact:

Wong Aung, + 95 9450065872 (Burma), global@shwe.org (Burmese, English)
Khin Ohmar, +95 9450063714  (Burma), khinohmar@burmapartnership.org (Burmese, English)
Aung Myo Min, +95 9448015306 (Burma), myominburma@gmail.com (Burmese, English)
Matthew Smith, +66 850280044 (Thailand), matthew.smith@fortifyrights.org (English)

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This post is in: Press Release

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