Court Reduces Prison Time for Detained Arakanese Activists

By Nyein Nyein 25 October 2013

Ten Arakanese activists who were sentenced to three months imprisonment in September for organizing an authorized protest against the Chinese-backed Shwe oil and gas pipeline, have had their sentences shortened by one month during an appeal hearing, a lawyer of the defendants said on Friday.

Kyauk Phyu Township Court in Arakan State commuted the defendants’ sentences to two months imprisonment, their lawyer Htein Lin said. The ten ethnic Arakanese, who have been detained since Sept. 26, “will now have to stay more than 20 days in prison as they already served one month,” he said.

“If they want to proceed with a further appeal, I will appeal at the higher court,” said Htein Lin, adding that he planned to meet the activists in Kyauk Phyu Prison on Saturday.

Tun Kyi, head of the Maday Region Development Association, and nine other Arakanese were brought before the court in May after they helped organize a protest without a government permit on April 18 against the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) oil pipeline project in Maday Island in Kyauk Phyu Township. Some 400 local farmers had gathered to protest.

The pipeline, which pumps oil and gas from Burma’s offshore reserves in the Bay of Bengal, runs from Arakanese coast through central Burma, including several conflict-ridden ethnic areas, and on to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China.

Burmese civil society organizations have documented numerous human rights abuses and negative social impacts along the path of the project, while thousands of villagers have complained of land confiscation without adequate compensation and an increased military presence.

Burmese authorities have dealt harshly with local dissent against the unpopular project, which is seen by many Burmese as benefiting only China and Burmese military-owned conglomerate.

Tun Kyi and his fellow activists were charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, which sets a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment for organizing a protest without a government permit.

Several Arakanese civil society groups continue to vigorously oppose the oil and gas pipeline, along with other natural resource extraction projects in the state, which they view as impacting local communities while offering them few benefits.

The Shwe oil and gas pipeline is one several Chinese megaprojects that were approved by the Burmese military regime shortly before it handed over power to President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011.

During the past few months, Chinese officials in Burma have begun to publicly address some of the concerns over these projects. On Friday, the Chinese Embassy announced on a post on its Facebook page that the Myanmar-China Friendship Association and Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) had organized a visit by a “China Business Delegation” to Sittwe, Kyauk Phyu and Thandwe.

The embassy said representatives of “some local enterprises and NGOs” provided advice to the Chinese delegation on Chinese investment, adding that this “gave the Chinese side a better understanding of Myanmar’s foreign investment policy as well as local people’s requests, resource situation and environmental protection requirements.”

The Shwe Gas Movement said in a report last month that Burma’s government stands to earn US$54 billion from the project during the next three decades. The country’s population, meanwhile, continues to suffer from chronic power shortages following decades of neglect under the previous military regime.

International and local rights groups have said that cases such as the sentencing of the 10 Arakanese activists indicate that Burma’s reformist government continues to imprison political activists.

The Alternative Asean Network on Burma (Altsean) said in a press release on Friday that it found that 63 activists and rights defenders have been arrested or prosecuted since May, most of them were charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act.

“Of this number, 33 were confirmed as sentenced to jail (between three months and two and a half years), while many others await trial or sentencing. At least three of those detained are former political prisoners,” the group said.