Jaw Gun’s reasons for risking his future to protest on the streets of Rangoon last month are very personal. As conflict in Kachin state drags on well into its second year, each casualty reported is a painful reminder of what the activist has lost over the decades.
“During the previous war, three of my siblings—two older brothers and one older sister—were killed,” he told The Irrawaddy from Rangoon where he faces the prospect of six years in jail for breaching Burma’s vaunted new protest bill.
“That was in the 1970s,” he said. “My father was also arrested under accusations of being a Kachin Independence Army member. Many others were either killed or died during that war.”
The era in question refers to the decades of fighting between Kachin rebels and the Burmese regime prior to a ceasefire being signed in 1994. But the breakdown of the agreement in June last year was marked by a series of skirmishes close to the China border that have since moved deeper in to Kachin State. At the time of writing, low-intensity fighting is underway as far inland as the jade-rich region of Hpakant.
This grisly conflict has become a blight on the landscape of a country supposedly moving toward democracy, and Jaw Gun knows well its intractability. He questions the rhetoric of a government that, for all its talk of moving on from the years of military rule, shows few signs of wanting genuine peace with Burma’s ethnic minorities. A coordinator at the Kachin Peace Network, he had joined a thousand-strong protest in Rangoon on Sept. 21, the UN’s International Peace Day, demanding that the government halt army offensives against the Kachin.
Yet despite Naypyidaw introducing a law that it says heralds a new era for freedom of expression in Burma, Jaw Gun and a dozen others were tracked down and arrested. Authorities argue that the activists were not granted permission to proceed with the demonstration, and have consequently leveled individual charges against Jaw Gun for each of the six Rangoon townships that he protested in – Dagon, Sanchaung, Tamwe, Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Botahtaung and Pazun Taung.
It begs serious questions of the “Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession” bill, brought into force earlier this year amid a chorus of praise from Western leaders. Human Rights Watch has already warned that the charges are reminiscent of the dictatorial response the former junta was known to give to its critics. The group’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said in a statement last week that the government “will quickly lose its new reformist label if it acts like past military governments by arresting and prosecuting peaceful protesters.”
After the protest, Jaw Gun was summoned to a teashop in Rangoon where he was told he would be handed a letter. Upon arrival, police arrested him.
Had Jaw Gun known of the risks involved in organizing a demonstration against a government still uncomfortable with public dissent?
“As human being, I am afraid of being arrested, as treatment by the police during interrogation, and in the prisons, can be so cruel and brutal,” he said. “But I would like to exchange that risk for peace [in Burma]. I believe the truth will set me free even though my body might die in prison.”
The bill ostensibly grants Burmese citizens an unprecedented right to protest, marking what some Western governments have claimed is a significant break with the past. But a number of clauses, notably one stating that permission must be granted days prior to the demonstration, severely curtail this apparent openness, and ensure the government retains control over what issues can and cannot be targeted by demonstrators.
It has also shown an arbitrariness over its use of the law: unlike the Kachin protests, none of the thousands who took part in the anti-Rohingya marches last month have been arrested, in all likelihood due to the demonstration being in support of President Thein Sein.
Aung Naing Oo, a political analyst and former member of the armed All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, thinks however that the charges leveled at the activists are less serious than meet the eye. Both sides are “testing the water,” he said.
So far as I can recall, none of the protest leaders since four monks organized a protest sometime last year in Mandalay have been punished,” he said. “So in this case, the worst-case scenario is a warning or a suspended prison term, in order to deter future breaking of the law.”
Does Aung Naing Oo consider the law valid, though? He responded that he thinks the government “should allow public protests because this is part and parcel of democratic practices,” but that authorities “must really be prepared to deal with public protests to make sure that they do not disrupt the public and their welfare.”
The ability to speak freely “is still a novelty” in Burma, he continues. “It is just an adjustment during the transition for all sides—both the authorities and protesters—to understand what it means by freedom of assembly, its boundaries, limits and rights.”
Jaw Gun is not so convinced, and worries that the bill, which ostensibly legitimizes the government’s right to arrest protesters, suggests ongoing duplicity by Naypyidaw. He and the other activists are still looking for a lawyer, despite the first court hearing in Dagon Township set for Oct. 10. Over the coming weeks he will go on trial in the five other townships where he protested.
His said his optimism over the fairness of the legal process is being tested. “At present, the changes in Myanmar [Burma] are not stable, given there is evidence of cruel and unlawful arrests as well as unjust investigations,” he says. “They [the government] must stop offensives [in Kachin State] and establish a process towards political dialogue. This would help to build a democratic country with justice and peace.”