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Anti-Rohingya Demonstrators in Arakan Are Assembly Law’s Latest Victims

Arakanese women protest in the streets of Sittwe, the Arakan State capital, on Oct. 10, 2012. (Photo: Rakhine Straight Views)

By Lawi Weng 

Four Arakanese demonstrators were sentenced this week by a court in Arakan State’s Kyauktaw Township, found guilty of organizing an unauthorized protest against a plan to resettle#Rohingya people in the town.

Thein Hlaing, Maung Win, Tin Tin Aye and Hla May were sentenced to three months in prison by the court on Wednesday.

“The court punished them for violating Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Act,” Than Saw, a lawyer for the defendants, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The four—two men and two women—were among nine activists arrested in March for organizing the peaceful but illegal demonstration in Kyauktaw. The other five detainees were later released after authorities could not present sufficient evidence against them.

More than 500 local Arakanese in Kyauktaw turned out on March 10 to protest the resettlement plan in a march through the town. The activists said they had asked permission from the police to stage the public protest, but were denied by the authorities.

“I found that the police could not bring any evidence in court against the accused of leading the protest march. The police could only show photos of the four activists who participated at the protest,” Than Saw said.

“In my view, the police should arrest all the people who participated in the protest and they should not just arrest these four people, who they only suspect of leading the group,” he said.

The unauthorized demonstration in Kyauktaw was prompted by a decision from the local authorities to resettle Rohingya Muslims in the township. Protesters argued that the Rohingyas—who are not granted Burmese citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law—had no right to a land claim in Kyauktaw.

Arrests of peaceful activists accused of violating Article 18 have taken place widely in Burma, with many still facing trial and others sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment. Authorities’ heavy-handed enforcement of Article 18 has faced criticism from human rights advocates who say that despite the country’s political reforms over the last two years, oppression via the Peaceful Assembly Act persists.

Since President Thein Sein took office in 2011, Burmese authorities have used Article 18 to arrest and prosecute land rights activists and environmental campaigners in jurisdictions across the country.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says Burma’s law on the right to peaceful assembly falls far short of international standards. Thein Sein signed the assembly law on Dec. 2, 2011.

Human Rights Watch has urged Parliament to repeal the law’s provisions that fail to meet international human rights standards, such as imprisonment as a penalty for Article 18 permit violations. In the meantime, the Home Affairs Ministry should consult with international organizations as it drafts regulations to mitigate some of the law’s harsh effects, the rights group argues.

“Burma’s new law on assembly rejects the previous ban on demonstrations, but still allows the government to trump the Burmese people’s basic rights,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said last year. “There is a lot of excitement about changes in Burma these days, but the government shouldn’t be given credit for allowing some freedom just because none existed before. Instead, it should be pressed to make sure its laws meet international standards.”