PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — A local court in Irrawaddy Division’s Dedaye Township sentenced five activists to five months in jail on Wednesday for damaging public property in relation to the alleged pasturing of water buffaloes in mangrove forests collaboratively grown by government departments.
Akar Win, a ranger with the Dedaye Township Forestry Department, filed a lawsuit in July last year against Htun Htun Oo, a member of the Pathein-based Human Rights Watch and Defense Network, and four locals, charging that the accused destroyed over 5,000 mangrove trees by pasturing buffaloes in Kyone Kanap Pasture in Dedaye Township, causing over 32,000 kyat in damages.
The township judge Than Than Win confirmed jail terms for the five activists— Htun Htun Oo, Cho Lwin, Win Shwe, Maung Myo and Hla Hla Yi—on Wednesday in a case which has spanned more than a year.
“Five persons including me were given a five-month prison sentence and fined 1,000 kyat each. Maung Myo and I were released as remand time is deducted. Ko Cho Lwin, Ko Win Shwe and Daw Hla Hla Yi were put behind bars in Pyapon Prison,” Htun Htun Oo told The Irrawaddy.
In September last year, Htun Htun Oo and three locals, including Cho Lwin and Win Shwe, were handed prison sentences by the Dedaye Township Court on three separate charges of violating Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law, after a group of environmentally conscious residents gathered to plant mangroves without local authorities’ permission.
Dedaye Township, which has a population of just over 200,000 according to the 2014 census, has suffered large-scale coastal erosion in recent years.
Htun Htun Oo refuted the latest charges and said the punishment was unfair.
“We were going to Ye Dwin Gon that day as a house there had invited us for lunch. They [the Forestry Department] fabricated the charge and accused us of destroying their mangrove forests,” Htun Htun Oo said.
“We said at the court that the mangrove trees grown by them [the Forestry Department] had been flooded by sea water and died a long time ago. There [mangrove] forest had already turned into a bald sandbank.”
Cho Lwin was equally baffled by Wednesday’s sentence.
“I was not at the crime scene and presented witnesses to the court [to prove this]. On that day, I was at my house because of a back ache caused by a motorbike accident. But then the court sentenced me to five months in prison. I would say the ruling of the court is totally unfair,” he said.
The accused all said they would appeal their sentences to a higher court and would look to sue the Dedaye Township Forestry Department for what they labeled trumped-up charges.
Translated by Thet Ko Ko