Irrawaddy Delta Land Activist Innocent in Irrigation Row: Wife

By Yen Saning 13 January 2015

RANGOON — An ailing land rights activist who is serving a six-month prison term in connection with a property dispute in Kyaunggon Township, Irrawaddy Division, is innocent of the crimes he was convicted of and will appeal a verdict issued late last year, his wife says.

Thet Wai is an ex-political prisoner and former National League for Democracy (NLD) chairman for Rangoon’s Sanchaung Township. The 60-year-old has previously spent several stints in prison for his political activism, most recently serving a two-year sentence from 2010-12. In March 2014, he was diagnosed with gastrointestinal tuberculosis, an ailment for which his family says he has been denied treatment while serving his sentence.

Thet Wai’s lawyer Soe Han said the charges stemmed from local outcry in 2012 over a fisherman who was operating an illegal fishery by building temporary dams across irrigation canals used by farmers in Kyaunggon Township. About 200 farmers removed the barriers in order to restore the flow of water to their fields, where crops were suffering with the irrigation conduits blocked.

The fisherman, named U Mone or U Soe Tint, sued 39 people for damaging his property and related charges in September 2012. Of the 39 people, the Kyaunggon Township Court charged 37 farmers under articles 447, 143 and 427 of the Penal Code, covering trespassing, unlawful assembly and property damage, respectively. The defendants were fined 13,500 kyats (US$13) for the three charges on Nov. 20, 2014.

That same day, Thet Wai and Shwe Ko Oo, whose backers say the men were merely helping to document the incident, faced two of the same charges, under articles 447 and 143, but were handed down harsher penalties, with the court sentencing them each to six months in prison.

Thet Wai’s lawyer, while acknowledging that his client was present when the villagers removed the dams, insisted that he had not part of the act itself.

“According to the law, this is not a criminal case,” Soe Han told The Irrawaddy. “We have already submitted an appeal to the Pathein District Court. The family does not accept and is not satisfied with the court’s decision.”

The family says they have been unable to send medicine to Thet Wai as Pathein Prison has refused to accept it. Despite a verbal promise from prison officials to provide Thet Wai with treatment, he has not yet received any medical attention, according to the family.