Candle Protestors on Trial in Rangoon

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 19 November 2013

RANGOON — Four of eight people who allegedly organized a candle-lit protest against a proposed increase in electricity prices are on trial this week, charged with staging an unauthorized demonstration in Rangoon.

Activists in Burma’s commercial capital took to the streets on Nov. 6 to protest the government plan to increase electricity rates, with more than 100 people wielding candles and carrying posters denouncing the proposal in a march through five Rangoon townships.

The demonstrations were prompted by an announcement from the Yangon City Electricity Supply Board (YESB), which said late last month that households consuming more than 101 units of electricity per month would be charged 50 kyats (US$0.05) per unit, a price rise of about 40 percent.

The eight people—Si Thu, Kyaw Nay Win, Tin Htut Paing, Than Swe, Ba Myint, Thein Aung Myint, Naung Naung and Ze Ya—have been charged with violating Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires prior permission from local authorities for any planned protest.

The eight activists are being charged by different townships, with some facing Section 18 trouble in multiple townships that the protest march passed through.

“At first there were only four people in court but now the number has been increased to eight people,” said Si Thu.

Si Thu is no stranger to the law, having been charged under Section 18 on 13 different occasions previously. The activist said police telephoned him to inform him of the latest charge, but he has not yet been detained by authorities and is not one of the four on trial this week. A Section 18 violation carries with it a prison sentence of up to one year and a maximum fine of 30,000 kyats (US$30).

The planned electricity price hike was postponed last week after Parliament urged Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power to review the proposal.

“I’m not scared to face the authorities, I’m feeling happy that we could do something for the people—after marching, the electricity price increase plan has been postponed until the next budget year,” Si Thu said.

Like himself, Si Thu said several of those charged in connection with the candle protest have racked up five or more Section18 charges for prior incidents.

“Section 18 should be abolished because it is against the people’s rights,” Si Thu said. “We will continue [to protest] if there is any government plan that is against the interests of the people.”

Tin Htut Paing, who has been charged 22 times under Section 18, said he is facing legal action from Kyauktada, Sanchaung, Kyimyindaing and Ahlone townships’ authorities for the Nov. 6 candle protest.

“My case is still pending, though four people are now facing trail for the candle protest. For the rest of my cases, about 10 are now in the courts,” he said.

“Due to the ongoing trials, I can’t do much at the moment. I am so annoyed at having to go [to court], waste time and money as well,” he said. “Section 18 shouldn’t exist. It is not in line with democratic reform.”

Tin Htut Paing, who has also been involved in protests against the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division and demonstrations urging the release of the country’s remaining political prisoners, said he would not shy away from protests aimed at amending the Peaceful Assembly Law.

The law was enacted in December 2011, eight months after the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein took power.