Naw Ohn Hla Says Religious Disturbance Case is Political

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 10 January 2014

RANGOON — Prominent activist Naw Ohn Hla is calling on Burmese authorities to drop charges filed against her for allegedly causing a disturbance when she held prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda to support opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2007.

The rights activist says her case is political, and should have been included when President Thein Sein recently dropped charges against 200 people standing trial for politically related crimes. He also pardoned all prisoners in jail for various political offenses—including organizing protests without permission.

In that amnesty, announced at the end of last month, Naw Ohn Hla saw charges dropped against her in a separate case, related to her participation in a protest in Rangoon last year in which a Chinese flag was burned. In November she was also released from prison in a mass presidential amnesty for political prisoners; she had been jailed for protesting against the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in northwest Burma.

But the religious disturbance charge, filed this year, has not been dropped.

“This case also relates to politics, so the president should also grant her amnesty,” her lawyer Robert San Aung.

In 2007, Naw Ohn Hla went to Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and led a prayer service for the release of Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time by the former military regime.

The pagoda is a famous Buddhist monument that is frequently visited by not only religious devotees but also Burmese and foreign travelers.

“When I was praying for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners to be released, pagoda security pulled us out of the compound one by one, roughly,” she told The Irrawaddy. “I went to the Bahan [Township] police station to file a complaint and press for legal charges, but the police officers did not accept my objection.”

Instead, charges were filed against her. The governing body of Shwedagon accused her of causing a religious disturbance, a crime under Article 296 of the Penal Code that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

“I thank the president for releasing political prisoners who were jailed under Section 505(B) and Article 18,” she said, referring to the most recent amnesty. Section 505 of the Penal Code and Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law have been used frequently by authorities to imprison political activists.

“But I am not satisfied that the judiciary is pursuing this lawsuit against me from a case that is six years old,” she said, adding that she hoped to later press charges against the police department for ignoring her complaints about harsh treatment at Shwedagon.

“Buddhism is freedom for all. I wonder why they are trying to sue me. I did it [the prayers] for other political prisoners. It shouldn’t be like this.”

A judge reportedly said the religious disturbance case was being brought to court now, after such a delay, because previously the authorities “couldn’t catch” the activist, according to her lawyer.

“This case is already six years old, and we have questions about that,” he said.

The activist has been freed from detention on bail and has appeared for three hearings in the Dagon Township Court for the case.