Myanmar’s Karen Activists Challenge ‘Martyr’ Protest Charges

By Htun Htun 17 September 2019

YANGON – Two activists accused of helping to organize an unauthorized Karen Martyrs’ Day commemoration in Yangon last month appeared at Kyauktada Township Court on Tuesday alongside Karen activist Naw Ohn Hla, their co-accused in the case.

Naw Ohn Hla, Saw Albert Cho and Sa Thein Zaw Min were charged under Article 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law after they commemorated the 69th Karen Martyrs’ Day in Yangon’s Maha Bandula Park on Aug. 12. The charge carries a maximum sentence of one month in prison.

They sought approval from the authorities before the commemoration, but it was not granted because of the use of the term “martyr”.

The event went ahead with more than 100 people attending.

The government has banned the use of the term “martyr” in reference to Karen revolutionary leader Saw Ba U Gyi, who was killed on Aug. 12, 1950. His death is commemorated annually as Karen Martyrs’ Day.

Kyauktada police detained Naw Ohn Hlaw, a longtime political activist and chairwoman of the Karen Women’s Union, on Sept. 9. The other two activists came forward on Tuesday to be detained, after initially eluding police.

At her first court appearance on Sept. 10, Naw Ohn Hlaw declined to seek bail and was sent to Insein Prison.

Naw Ohn Hla said during her court hearing on Tuesday that the three did not do anything wrong and would challenge the case in court.

“This is the prohibition of ethnic rights. We will face the charges in accordance with the law as we did not do anything wrong. We will not request bail,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Their next hearing is on Sept. 24, when the court is due to hear from witnesses.

President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay said on Friday that the legal action was being taken because the protesters violated the peaceful assembly law, not because they were commemorating Karen Martyrs’ Day.

The Karen National Union demanded that the case be dropped and the three released.

The armed group urged the government to acknowledge the national identity of all ethnic minorities, as each possesses a unique history, culture, literature and language. The group said Myanmar needed to acknowledge ethnic identities to establish a genuinely democratic, federal union.

More than 200 civil society groups and the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), which is comprised of 12 ethnic-minority political parties, also demanded the case be dropped and for the release of Naw Ohn Hla.

The UNA said the prosecution showed the authorities were failing to respect the equality and self-determination of all ethnicities.