Environmental Activist Faces Arrest in Myanmar's Karen State, Rights Groups Object

By Lawi Weng 10 March 2020

Right groups have asked the Karen State government to drop charges against a Karen environmental activist over his role in a traditional prayer ceremony, saying he was acting to protect local water resources against pollution from a coal-powered cement factory.

Police attempted to arrest Saw Tha Phoe, a Karen environmentalist from the Karen Rivers Watch Network, at his home in Hpa-an Township on Saturday but he was not at home.

The police attempted the arrest after the Hpa-an General Administration Department filed a complaint against Saw Tha Phoe under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, which prohibits making or circulating statements that may cause public fear or alarm and incite the public to commit an offense against the state or “public tranquility.”

The government filed the complaint in connection with a traditional Karen prayer ceremony on Jan. 17, in which local residents and village monks from Hpa-an’s Myaingkalay District came together to pray for protection from pollution caused by the Myaingkalay cement factory.

Several civil society groups issued statements Monday condemning the attempted arrest of Saw Tha Phoe and the government’s actions, saying they violated the rights of citizens, human rights and democratic standards.

Sai Khur Hseng, spokesperson for the Save the Salween Network, told The Irrawaddy Tuesday that the Karen State government should drop the charges as Saw Tha Poe was acting peacefully and did not break the law.

“It was an environmental issue and he was working for everyone to be able to enjoy a clean environment. He was just trying to protect against the actions of the company, which will damage the local community’s environment,” Sai Khur Seng said.

“We strongly condemn the actions of the township General Administration Department and the Karen State Government, which severely hinders Myanmar’s peace process and steps toward federalism,” read a statement by the Save the Salween Network and Burma Rivers Network.

Ko Ye Lin Myint from the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) told The Irrawaddy that it was meaningless for the Karen State government to take action against Saw Tha Phoe.

“He was just praying for the environment and he did not commit any act of defamation against the government,” he said.

Karen communities in the area have called for the Karen State government to stop the Myaingkalay cement factory from using coal power as it has polluted water sources around Myaingkalay’s Nat Kone Village, in Bat Village-tract.

Right groups also questioned what type of democratic government would order the arrest of Saw Tha Phoe.

Sai Khur Hseng pointed out that the actions of the Karen State government represent the opposite of the principles of democracy, peaceful community and environmental values often discussed by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tin Tun Aung, a Hpa-an police officer, told Radio Free Asia that he and other police went to arrest Saw Tha Phoe at his house but he was not at home. The officer said that police will continue to search for the activist.

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