RANGOON — A Rangoon court on Wednesday found prominent 88 Generation student leader Ko Ko Gyi and four other activists guilty of breaching Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law, sentencing them each to 21 days in prison or a fine of 10,000 kyats (US$8.30).
Speaking outside the South Okkalar Township courthouse following the verdict, Ko Ko Gyi told reporters that he would opt to serve the prison term, but an unknown benefactor stepped in to pay the financial penalty, apparently intent on seeing the activist’s political ambitions realized.
At a press conference at the office of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society in Rangoon on Wednesday, Ko Ko Gyi said he did not know the man who offered up the money, which also paid for the identical fines handed down to the other four activists on trial.
“Compared with my previous terms [as a political prisoner], it is relatively small,” Ko Ko Gyi said of the sentence. “We already thought that if they charged us with this case, we would face it. If the case is finished today, we have other important things to do, such as make political decisions and undertake political activities.”
The five activists’ case gained prominence this week after the pro-democracy activist said Sunday that he intended to run for Burma’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy, in a general election due Nov. 8. On Monday, Ko Ko Gyi received a summons from the court in Rangoon’s South Okkalar Township to appear for a hearing on the case.
The charges stem from a protest he helped lead in December 2014, and Ko Ko Gyi had speculated that the long delay in trial proceedings was aimed at preventing him from running in the election. With Wednesday’s verdict from Judge Khin Maung Swe, it would appear that Ko Ko Gyi will be a free man when the campaigning period officially kicks off 60 days before election day.
Ko Ko Gyi and four other activists ran afoul of the Peaceful Assembly Law on Dec. 21, when they failed to stage their protest within the confines of Kyaikkasan Stadium in Tamwe Township as authorities had insisted, instead leading a small march through Ward 9 of Okkalar Township. Ward 9 is the site of a condominium development that the activists oppose, with the protesters seeking to have construction of the project halted and, ultimately, to see the land restored to the public park that it was previously.
In the early 2000s, Burma’s then-military government gave the property to the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the political mass movement of the junta and predecessor of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The party has since built a township office and a number of shop houses in the area, but has grander designs for a condominium complex at the site.
‘I Don’t Know Him’
The defendants’ lawyer Robert San Aung on Wednesday said the anonymous benefactor had paid the fines so that Ko Ko Gyi could stand for office in the November election.
“I don’t know him and he gave [money for] the fines and went away. He said he is not politician and he is only a civilian who wants Ko Ko Gyi to enter Parliament,” the lawyer said.
The Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 19, which the activists were sentenced under, carries with it a maximum sentence of three months in prison, a fine not exceeding 10,000 kyats or both.
Uncertainty over the trial’s timeline and ultimate verdict had raised the prospect of Ko Ko Gyi being behind bars when the Union Election Commission (UEC) scrutinizes candidate lists next month, with his potential imprisonment threatening to derail is candidacy under election law.
Article 19 and its better-known sister clause, Article 18, have been used by authorities to jail scores of peaceful protestors in recent years, swelling the ranks of Burma’s political prisoners even as the government insists that all prisoners of conscience have been released.