YANGON—Six ethnic Karenni youth were sentenced to six months in prison with hard labor on Thursday by the court in Loikaw Township, Kayah State for issuing a statement that allegedly called the state’s chief minister a traitor and political criminal. The court sentenced the six under Article 8(d) of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens.
The six youth issued a statement on March 25 that said Kayah State Chief Minister U L Phaung Sho and Planning and Finance Minister U Maw Maw forcibly erected a statue of Myanmar independence hero General Aung San in a park in the state capital of Loikaw despite objections from the people of Kayah State.
The statement accused the two of being political criminals, traitors to the Karenni people and enemies of ethnic unity.
The statement also accused the chief minister of acting as a dictator and overseeing raids, lawsuits, threats and violence against Karenni people who have objected to and protested the Gen. Aung San statue.
The statement also accused the state government of abusing its power to allocate over 140 million kyats (US$92,000) of the state’s road and telecommunications funds for the erecting of the Gen. Aung San statue, without informing Parliament.
Chief Minister U L Phaung Sho didn’t immediately take action against the authors of the statement. But when negotiations over the Karenni activists’ demands to remove the statue collapsed in May, the chief minister ordered officials to sue the group that issued the statement.
The six Karenni youth who signed the statement—Ko Myo Hlaing Win, Ko Dee De, Ko Khun Thomas, Ko Khu Reedu, Ko Pyar Lay and Ko Khu Khu Peh Kay—were arrested in June following a lawsuit filed by the Kayah State government.
The group was detained for about four months before they were sentenced to six months in prison with hard labor on Thursday.
”Freedom of speech and expression are fundamental to democracy. Oppression by authorities who can use the laws as they want to against us is not fair, while we are moving towards democracy,” Ko Khun Thomas told the media on Thursday.
Ko Dee De said they will continue protesting against the Gen. Aung San statue when they are released from Jail.
”I thought the government tackled the issue heavy-handedly. Invoking Article 8(d) is not a solution to the disputes over the statue and peace in the state,” Ko Khun Bedu, chairman of the Kayan National Party, told the Irrawaddy on Thursday.
He added that the Kayah State government has neglected the wishes of Kayah youth regarding the Gen. Aung San statue.
In February, the Kayah State government erected the statue in a park in Loikaw amid protests from local Karenni residents. When protesters gathered later outside the local National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters, authorities forced them to disperse.
Karenni activists have said that they have their own history involving their own ethnic leaders and that the statue of Gen. Aung San is a symbol of the dominant role that the interests and identity of the Burmese majority plays in the country, compared to the marginalized ethnic minorities. To the activists, the statue is also a symbol of what they see as yet-unfulfilled promises made by the assassinated general at the Panglong Agreement of 1947.
The NLD government has also erected statues of Gen. Aung San in other states amid challenges from local residents.