Just three days after Burma’s President Thein Sein pledged to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of the year, a farmer with great public support in Kachin State was sentenced to two years in prison under the Unlawful Associations Act.
Lahtaw Brang Shawng was on Thursday found guilty after the government accused him of connections to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic rebel group that is engaging in peace talks with the government after decades of civil war.
The farmer—who was accused of participating in a bomb plot and being a soldier for the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—was living at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) when he was arrested in June last year. Other residents at the camp and people in the north Burma state say he had no connections to the rebel groups and was merely an ordinary civilian seeking shelter from the fighting.
The final verdict on Thursday—which was delayed for several weeks—came after Thein Sein vowed on Monday to release all remaining political prisoners by the year’s end. It also followed recent assurances by the government that the KIO would be removed from its list of illegal associations and that Brang Shawng would be released from custody.
The decision by the township court in Myitkyina, the state capital, drew criticism from the public, who have for months petitioned the government to release the farmer, who was denied bail after his trial began last year.
“The court’s verdict for an ordinary IDP is worrying,” said Aung Myat, a priest at the Janmai Kaung Baptist camp, where the farmer lived before his arrest. “Every innocent refugee in Janmai Kaung camp is worried about what this means for them.”
Defense lawyer Mar Khar said his client did not receive a fair trial. “The judge didn’t make a decision based on my arguments—the verdict was already decided,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Brang Shawng was taken away by security shortly after the decision was read in court.
“They didn’t let me talk to him,” said his wife, Ze Nyoi. “They took him away in their vehicle and there’s been no news of his whereabouts.”
“I worry about him because we cannot contact each other,” she added. “I learned that he was not sent to prison. I’m so worried that I cannot even eat.”
It has been nearly two months since the government’s main peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, said Brang Shawng would be released within a week. During a meeting with the internally displaced Kachin people at the end of May, the minister said the government would remove the KIO from its list of illegal associations and that Kachin detainees being held under the Unlawful Associations Act, including Brang Shawng, would be freed.
Brang Shawng, 25, a father of two children, was arrested last year at the Janmai Kaung camp in government-controlled Myitkyina Township. His family was taking shelter at the camp amid fighting between the KIA and the government’s army, after a ceasefire between both sides broke down in 2011.
His family and lawyer say he was forced to confess during a brutal round of interrogation the month he was arrested. Soon after that, his trial began and he was charged under Section 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.
In Kachin State, 76 people have been accused of violating the act since fighting resumed in 2011. Sixteen cases are still pending, although clashes have died down since the resumption of ceasefire talks in February this year.
The highly criticized act was used by the former military regime to detain dissidents who communicated with exile organizations and ethnic rebel groups. The law has come into question since Burma’s nominally civilian government has signed ceasefire agreements with most major ethnic armed groups, with critics saying the law threatens to invalidate the government’s peace process and communication with those groups.
Burma Campaign UK released a statement on Friday calling for the “immediate unconditional release” of Brang Shawng and condemning the government for being inconsistent with its promises.