Interfaith Activist Detained for Unlawful Association

By Zarni Mann 17 July 2015

MANDALAY — A Muslim interfaith activist and member of Burma’s main opposition party was apprehended in Mandalay this week on charges of unlawful association, possibly in relation to photos he shared on social media picturing himself holding an assault rifle.

Zaw Zaw Latt, who is in his early 30s, was arrested on Tuesday at a teashop after being questioned by police and local authorities, according to his colleague, who said the photographs in question were taken during a charity trip to war-torn Kachin State in 2013.

“The police called him to meet at the tea shop to ask about the photos, which he posted on his Facebook a long time ago,” Pwint Phu Latt, who worked with the accused at the Mandalay Interfaith Social Volunteer Youth Group, told The Irrawaddy.

“After talking for some time, the police pulled him and said he was under arrest, and they took him away.”

Pwint Phu Latt said she was present at the tea shop and witnessed the arrest. Zaw Zaw Latt’s family said that investigators came to search their home on Thursday night, taking with them his camera, a few CDs and his memory cards.

Police confirmed that Zaw Zaw Latt remains in custody, and that he faces charges under Article 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, a controversial law that critics claim is susceptible to abuse by authorities who wish to stifle dissent.

The provision contains vague language that outlaws meetings or membership with any organization deemed as an “unlawful association,” including multiple non-state armed groups.

Mandalay’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) declined to comment on the case. It is unclear which unlawful organization he has been accused of associating with, though speculation abounds on social media.

“He didn’t do anything wrong and we feel that there’s someone behind this, trying to stir up problems among the interfaith community,” Pwint Phyu Latt said, remarking on Internet rumors claiming that her colleague belonged to an armed Muslim group that many credible researchers believe does not exist.

“He is the one who always tried to clear away the rumors that try to destabilize our city, and we feel like he became a target for people who don’t like the truth and want to spread hate speech,” she said.

Zaw Zaw Latt was also an information officer for a youth department of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s main opposition party chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, leading the CID to question several other members of the local chapter. The party’s information office confirmed that several members had been questioned in relation to the arrest, but declined to comment further.

In July of last year, riots erupted in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, between Muslims and Buddhists after false rape allegations went viral on social media. Two men—one Buddhist and one Muslim—were killed during the chaotic unrest.