No Reprieve for Student Activists as Courts Pile on More Charges

By Tin Htet Paing 3 February 2016

RANGOON — Detained critics of Burma’s controversial National Education Law are facing mounting legal pressure for their campaign against the legislation last year, with one student leader saying she was slapped with additional “illegal assembly” charges by at least five Rangoon courts.

While the trials of more than 50 students and their supporters in Thayawady Township, Pegu Division, continue to drag on, courts from the commercial capital’s Kamayut, Botahtaung, Tamwe, Hlaing and Mayangone townships have now tacked on charges against at least one prominent student activist under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung, the 28-year-old student activist, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that she had received summonses from courts in the five Rangoon jurisdictions this week. Between Rangoon and Pegu divisions, the student leader said she is facing charges in more than 30 cases making their way through the courts, most of them on Article 18 violations.

Fellow student leader Nanda Sitt Aung, who appeared with Phyoe Phyoe Aung at a hearing in Botahtaung Township on Wednesday, is facing more than 80 cases, she said.

While many of these prosecutions pertain to Article 18, there are also more serious charges filed against the students by the Thayawady Township Court, including articles 143, 145, 147, 332 and 505(b) of the Burmese Penal Code.

Article 18 charges come with a maximum sentence of six months in prison and or a fine not exceeding 30,000 kyats (US$23), while the Penal Code charges carry maximum sentences of one to two years’ imprisonment.

Fifty-three students remain detained at Thayawady Prison in Pegu Division, among them Phyoe Phyoe Aung and Nanda Sitt Aung. The pair appeared along with Kyaw Ko Ko, James a.k.a. Linn Htet Naing and supporter Win Kyawt Hmue at the Kamayut Township Court in Rangoon for a hearing last week.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung said that current government is bringing more prosecutions to bear on the student protesters even as the international community and local advocacy groups have raised pressure on President Thein Sein to release all political prisoners unconditionally.

“The government is going to leave many unsolvable problems to the incoming government. They are purposely making our case more complicated,” she said.

Members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and their supporters have been detained in Thayawady Prison since March 10 of last year, when a months-long campaign against the National Education Law was brutally quashed by police in neighboring Letpadan Township.

Human rights watchdogs have criticized the Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 18, contending that it has been used as a tool to arrest peaceful protesters and to suppress freedom of expression.

A coalition of groups last week released a report in which they claimed some of the 53 detainees at Thayawady Prison faced illnesses that were potentially “life-threatening,” calling for their immediate release.