Mangrove Planting Now an ‘Illegal Protest,’ Court Rules

By Salai Thant Zin 24 September 2014

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Human rights activist Htun Htun Oo and three locals were handed prison sentences by a court in Irrawaddy Division on Tuesday, convicted of violating Burma’s controversial protest law after a group of environmentally concerned residents planted mangroves in Dedaye Township, which has suffered large-scale coastal erosion in recent years.

Htun Htun Oo from the Human Rights Watch and Defense Network (HRWDN) was sentenced to six months in prison by Judge Ye Htut Kaung on three separate charges of violating Burma’s Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, in connection with his environmental activities in the delta region. He was charged with two months in prison for each of the trio of offenses, which consisted of rallying support for growing mangroves, the unpermitted planting of mangroves, and staging a solo demonstration against Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.

Of the other defendants, Cho Lwin and Khin Shwe were handed four months’ imprisonment and Myint Lwin received a two-month sentence.

“The judge didn’t ask the defendants if they pled guilty or not. The judge read out the defense submitted by U Htun Htun Oo at the previous trial and gave him two months’ imprisonment for each Article 18 charge,” Dedaye local Aung Kyaw San told The Irrawaddy.

Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law requires that would-be demonstrators receive permission from local authorities prior to staging the activity.

“U Htun Htun Oo shouted ‘Is this democracy?’ as he was brought by the police [to prison],” Aung Kyaw San added.

Htun Htun Oo gave talks in March in Dedaye calling for a mangrove growing campaign to mitigate environmental degradation, for which he was later charged with Article 18 along with Cho Lwin, Khin Shwe and Myint Lwin by police chief Naing Mon Tun from the township’s Kyonedat village.

In May, Htun Htun Oo led locals to plant more than 90,000 mangroves in a pasture in Dedaye. For this, he was charged under Article 18 for a second time, again along with Cho Lwin and Khin Shwe.

“U Htun Htun Oo gave talks on the need for growing of mangroves in our region and led locals to grow mangrove trees,” said Soe Soe from the village of Tawkani-Nyaungleingon in the township.

“We joined hands to grow mangroves as we began to realize their value. We reported to the Irrawaddy Division chief minister that we would grow mangroves. He allowed us to do so and said that his government would also do so. It is totally unfair that [the defendants] were given prison sentences on charges of Article 18,” she said.

Dedaye Township police handed the four activists over to the Pyapon jail, where they are to serve out their sentences.

Htun Htun Oo was also charged by Dedaye Township’s forestry department with damaging public property for the alleged pasturing of water buffaloes in mangrove forests collaboratively grown by government departments. He is due to face a separate trial on that charge at the Dedaye Township Court on Friday.

Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law was enacted by the government of President Thein Sein in December 2011. Since then, dozens of people have been handed prison sentences under Article 18 and many more are awaiting trial. Amendments this year intended to soften the law and ease restrictive provisions have failed to curb the arrest of demonstrators across the country.

Dedaye Township, which suffers from severe erosion, is made up of 46 villages along a coastal area with a population of more than 40,000 people.