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The world watches as freedom in the new democracy is tested

Peaceful protest organizers face jail in Myanmar

Peace protesters marched in Yangon on September 21 Peace protesters marched in Yangon on September 21
  • Thomas Toe, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • October 5, 2012
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Two ethnic Kachin are facing trial in Yangon for violating the country’s 2011 public assembly law, after leading 1,000 on World Peace Day last month. A further 11 activists are waiting to see if action will be taken against them.

“We are striving our best for peace but the law does not allow us,”said Jaw Gum, head of the Kachin Peace Network, which organized the march on September 21.

“While we gathered in Yangon to go to Naypyidaw on September 21, the police told us to disperse otherwise we will be charged,” he said. “Now they are charging our leading organizers for violating the law.”

The demonstrators, who were calling for peace in Kachin state and elsewhere in Myanmar, made up the largest rally in the country since the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The organizers say they submitted a letter to the police applying to stage the protest, according to the law.

Authorities say the group was denied a permit to protest. If found guilty of violating Article 18, the accused face a penalty of up to one year in prison and a 30,000 kyat (US$35) fine, according to a statement on October 1 from New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Peace protests have been common since the new civilian government was sworn in last year, ending more than four decades of military rule. Parliament issued a law allowing for peaceful protest, but there are still obstacles for getting permission from local authorities.

The country still lacks freedom of expression, which must exist in a true democracy, Jaw Gum said.

Many analysts see the incident as a test of the government's real determination to make reforms in Myanmar that are substantial and irreversible..

“The Burmese government will quickly lose its new reformist label if it acts like past military governments by arresting and prosecuting peaceful protesters,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against the peace march organizers should be dropped immediately.

“President Thein Sein should demonstrate his commitment to rights reform by making it clear that his government welcomes peaceful protests,” Robertson said. “The Burmese government’s new friends in places like Washington, Brussels and Tokyo should challenge Naypyidaw to uphold basic freedoms. This is a test case not only for the Burmese authorities but for the international community.”

Pho Phyu, a Yangon-based lawyer, said it was clear that although the law allowing protests was issued, it is not being put into practice. People should have the right to stage peaceful protests without requiring official permission, he said.

“The country still lacks checks and balances.”
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