An internally displaced woman with a child hangs laundry outside a temporary shelter at a church compound in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in this May 2018 file photo. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Church leaders, rights groups and civil society organizations have criticised the sentencing of three ethnic Kachin activists in northern Myanmar to six months' imprisonment for protesting over the treatment of civilians by security forces.
Father Peter Hka Awng Tu, parish priest of St. Columban's Cathedral in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, said trapped civilians had unfairly borne the brunt of fighting with Kachin militants and the prison terms handed down to the protesters were not justified.
"It raised concerns on the rights of freedom of speech and rule of law, which are pillars of democracy," Father Awng Tu told ucanews.com.
The priest said hundreds of Catholics and Baptists would be joining a Dec. 11 protest in Myitkyina to show public opposition to imprisonment of the activists.
Reverend Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), said the sentencing called into question judicial independence.
"It shows Myanmar's military can do as they wish and the judiciary can't overcome the influence from the military, which still plays a key role in Myanmar's politics," Rev. Samson told ucanews.com.
On Dec. 7, the court in Myitkyina sentenced the three activists for defaming the military, imposing fines of 500,000 kyats (US$320) on each of them in addition to the prison terms.
Lum Zawng, Nang Pu and Zau Jat led the peaceful protests in conflict-torn Kachin State in April over the the plight of thousands of civilians trapped in a jungle amid fierce fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
International rights groups have called on Myanmar's government to quash the convictions and release the three men immediately.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the military is once again using criminal defamation laws to punish those who criticize its actions.
"By filing charges against activists who simply urged help for civilians trapped by fighting, Myanmar's military shows its unwillingness to curtail serious abuses," Robertson said Dec. 8.
Tirana Hassan, from Amnesty International, described the verdict as appalling, adding that it showed the government's determination to repress any peaceful opposition to the military.
"It sends a chilling warning to any humanitarian actor or activist who wants to tell the truth about the Myanmar military's brutality in Kachin and northern Shan states and beyond," Hassan said.
The United States and British embassies, the European Union delegation and more than 500 civil society groups inside Myanmar have also called for the release of three imprisoned activists.
More than 7,400 people were displaced by fighting in eight townships — including Tanai, Ingyanyang and Hpakant — in April alone. They have since been sheltering at Catholic and Baptist churches.
Renewed fighting erupted in 2011 following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire and more than 120,000 people have fled to 179 internally displaced persons' camps in Kachin and neighboring Shan State.
Most of Kachin's 1.7 million people are Christians, including 116,000 Catholics.