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Prominent Myanmar activist group left leaderless

Increasing arrests, crackdowns on dissent show it’s back to ‘business as usual’
Prominent Myanmar activist group left leaderless

Political activist Ko Htin Kyaw reacts after being released from Insein prison in Yangon on December 31, 2013. He was sent back to prison last week. (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

ucanews.com correspondent, Yangon
Myanmar
September 10, 2014
As political activist Ko Htin Kyaw was taken away in a police van last week to begin serving jail sentences totaling more than a decade, his supporters held up three fingers.

The gesture is similar to one that has become a symbol of opposition to the new military junta in neighboring Thailand, after activists co-opted it from The Hunger Games books and films. But the three fingers have their own meaning to these Burmese activists, whose country was ruled for decades by its military.

“It’s not copied, in Burma [Myanmar] it’s different,” said Ko Zarni, an activist with the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), which Ko Htin Kyaw headed until his incarceration.

“The first finger is for ‘no justice’ — there’s no justification for the trial,” he said in explanation.

“The second is for interference: the authorities getting involved with the judges and the courts. The third is for the bribery and corruption of the judges and the legal system.”

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Ko Htin Kyaw’s case appears to involve all of these elements, and human rights advocates say it demonstrates that tolerance for criticism has reached a limit among the former soldiers who now run Myanmar as civilians.

Since MDCF sprung up in 2011, its members have pushed the boundaries of the newfound freedoms brought about by the move to civilian rule that year. But the group’s actions have met with the wrath of the court system.

MDCF has offered its services to citizens trying to make their voices heard, helping farmers to protest against land grabs, often in remote areas, and organizing protests against rising electricity prices that squeeze the country’s poor majority.

In April, the group held a demonstration to highlight what they said was the current government’s illegitimacy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won the last general election in which it was allowed to participate — in 1990 — and a statement distributed by MDCF professed to “elect” Suu Kyi as the country’s new leader.

The authorities cracked down, claiming the somewhat bizarre statement amounted to a threat to national stability.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper warned that a news report that quoted the statement “may cause misunderstanding among the readers and defamation of the government, undermine the stability of the State and damage public interests [sic].” Four journalists and the publisher at the offending publication, the Bi Mon Te Nay weekly journal, were duly arrested and charged with sedition after the story was published in July.

Ko Htin Kyaw, who was arrested May 5, was charged in 11 different township courts in Yangon under both Article 505(b) of the penal code — making statements conducive to public mischief — and under Article 18 of the Law on Peaceful Assembly — for demonstrating without permission. Similar charges have also been brought against five other MDCF activists.

The charges in each court are considered separate crimes, and Ko Htin Kyaw has so far amassed 10 years and six months in jail, some of it with hard labor, according to Ko Zarni. Another verdict is due Thursday.

With its leader behind bars, MDCF finds itself weakened.

“Now we don't have any special plans,” said Ko Zarni of MDCF’s uncertain future. “It’s very difficult for us now because altogether four of our members have been arrested and two more are also on trial.”

The judicial crackdown on MDCF comes as arrests of activists are increasing in Myanmar, which at the end of last year claimed it had released all political prisoners. At the end of August, 84 inmates considered political prisoners were in Myanmar’s jails, with another 122 people awaiting trial for political activities, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

That includes some of the people MDCF has aided. Sein Than, the leader of a land rights protest camp in the center of Yangon, is also accumulating jail time. He has been sentenced to eight months so far, with two charges yet to be ruled on — also by multiple courts across the city.

UK-based Amnesty International has issued urgent appeals on behalf of both Ko Htin Kyaw and Sein Than, calling them “prisoner[s] of conscience who must be immediately and unconditionally released”.

Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Myanmar, said the cases highlight a continuation of the policy of Myanmar’s former military rulers, who criminalized dissent. The current government of the self-styled reformist Thein Sein is stacked with former generals, including the president himself.

“In terms of the situation in the country, in terms of respect for freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, I think not much has changed actually,” Haigh told ucanews.com.

“There’s been no official condemnation, there’s been no criticism from anyone on high, so it’s almost like business as usual,” Haigh said, adding that the implicit message to local authorities therefore was: “You can continue to arrest and imprison anyone that has any kind of critical voice.”

Veteran activist Moethee Zun, a former leader of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front who until recently worked with the MDCF in helping Sein Than and his fellow land protesters, agreed.

“I see many activists who are campaigning against local authorities [are detained]. U Thein Sein’s administration doesn’t take any action against local authorities,” said Moethee Zun, who is no longer a Burmese citizen and now resides in the United States because he was recently told he will not be granted a visa to return to the country of his birth.

He said the president was being familiarly “double-faced” regarding the courts, which are believed to be influenced by so-called hardline members of the military establishment who oppose moves toward democratization.

“[The president is] saying ‘I cannot control them as they belong to hardliners.’ When Khin Nyunt [a former prime minister of Myanmar’s military junta] was in power, he used that strategy already.”

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