Two courts in Rangoon have handed down a total of eight months in jail terms to the leader of land rights activists who have for months camped out in the city’s downtown in protest over land seized by the Burmese military.
Sein Than is the most prominent member of the community who until the early 1990s lived in Michaungkan village, Thingangyun Township, and have over the past two years persistently demonstrated to have the Burma Army return their land. In March, after Parliament’s land committee failed to solve the dispute, the former residents set up a camp adjacent to Mahabandoola Gardens near City Hall and have occupied it ever since.
Sein Than was detained in late July and is facing charges in multiple courts in the former capital under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which criminalizes gatherings that do not have the prior permission of the authorities.
Two courts sentenced Sein Than to four months in jail each this week, said his daughter, Nay Nwe Than.
“On Wednesday, he received four months in prison from the Bahan Township Court under Article 18,” Nay Nwe Than told The Irrawaddy.
“Prior to that, on Aug. 18, the Pabedan Township Court sentenced him to four months imprisonment with hard labor [under the same charge].”
Sein Than also appeared before Kyauktada Township Court on Thursday, facing another charge for protesting without permission, and is due to appear on Friday at Latha Township Court, where he is charged under municipal law.
Sein Than was jailed on the same charge in 2013, but released during an amnesty granted by President Thein Sein on Dec. 31.
Nay Nwe Than said her father was not represented by a lawyer at the courts, but the family has sought legal advice from lawyers like Robert San Aung, who represents people fighting human rights cases.
Robert San Aung said Sein Than’s trials were swift, with no time given to the accused or lawyers to put forward a defense. “The hearing is quickly done so we are not able to defend him before the judge,” he said.
The controversial Article 18 was recently amended to force authorities to grant permission to demonstrators who request it ahead of time, but the law does not allow for long-term sit-in protests of the kind staged by the former Michaungkan residents.
The amended Article 18 says bail should not be more than 30,000 kyat ($30.80), and punishment should be no more than six months in prison.
The Pabedan and Bahan township courts did offer bail to Sein Than ahead of the sentencing, but it was set at 30 million kyat ($30,800) and 60 million kyat, respectively, so the family and supporters were unable to pay.
Robert San Aung said the judges’ handling of Sein Than’s cases showed the weakness of rule of law in Burma.
“The judges’ decision [for bail] should not be that high. How could he and his family pay that? He is just one of the victims of a land grab,” he said.
Upper House lawmaker Thein Nyunt, who represents the Thingangyun constituency and sits on the Judicial, Legal Affairs and Public Complaint Assessment Committee, said it was common for courts to set exorbitant sums for bail.
“It is unacceptable to ask such an enormous amount for bail—not only in this case, but in other cases as well,” he said.