‘Rakhine Life Matters’ Protesters Sought by Police in Sittwe

By Moe Myint 4 July 2019

YANGON—A group of Arakanese activists who staged a “Rakhine Life Matters” protest in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, on Tuesday calling for justice for civilians who have died during and after military detention are being sought by police, a senior state police officer said.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Thursday afternoon, Colonel Kyi Linn said police have opened cases against the protesters and are now searching for them. He declined to elaborate on the reason for the lawsuits, the names of the accused or which laws each suspect is accused of violating.

U Saw Thein Tun, the father of Ko Than Hla, one of the accused protesters, said that about five police officers came to his house and searched his son for about half an hour on Tuesday night. He said the police told him that authorities had filed cases against his son and some of his fellow activists over Tuesday’s protest.

“I told them my son was not at home, as he spends most of his time at the youth office downtown [in Sittwe]. It seems they still haven’t apprehended him as of this afternoon,” U Saw Thein Tun said on Thursday.

Six Arakanese youths staged the peaceful protest in U Ottama Park in central Sittwe on July 2. They held up banners in Burmese and English reading “We want justice for the dead civilians in custody,” “Stop targeting and killing civilians” and “Stop fighting and make peace now.”

The protest calling for peace and justice followed the deaths of two of eight men who were detained in Mrauk-U’s Pauktaw Pyin Village by the army in late June. Shortly before his death, Ko Zaw Win Hlaing, the second of the two men to die, claimed to have been tortured and severely beaten by soldiers. He died in a hospital in Sittwe on Monday after vomiting blood.

Military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun on Wednesday told local media outlet 7 Day that the Myanmar military follows a no-torture rule during interrogations, adding that any violators would be prosecuted under civilian and martial law.

In his final minutes of life, Ko Zaw Win Hlaing told relatives that during his interrogation, soldiers beat him with a bag of rocks made from his own longyi. In the hospital, he was unable to drink water offered to him by his mother.

The last words he reportedly uttered—“Don’t give me water, Mom. I will not last long. My organs are badly damaged. I can’t breathe. Don’t give me water, Mom. I have to go…”—were widely disseminated on Facebook and have featured prominently in an online campaign. Since early this year, a total of 14 civilians have died in military detention in northern Rakhine. Armed clashes between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military have displaced more than 40,000 people.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun added that the military was aware of the speculation that Ko Zaw Win Hlaing died during torture by army personnel.

“All I can say is that every citizen has the right to lodge a legal complaint if they feel they were mistreated,” he said.

The UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recently made fresh accusations of war crimes against the Myanmar military over its activities in Rakhine. At a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, she urged the body to prosecute Myanmar’s top military leaders at the International Criminal Court for what she said were their rights abuses against civilians.

Wanted protester Ko Than Hla, also known as Ko Minbar Chay, told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Thursday that he hadn’t received an official letter from the police as of Thursday afternoon. However, his family has learned that a warrant had been issued accusing Ko Than Hla of violating the Peaceful Assembly Law.

In Myanmar, organizers of protests, marches and other public events must obtain police approval at least 48 hours in advance. Failing to do so carries a penalty of at least six months’ jail or a fine to be determined by a judge.

Ko Than Hla said he did not know whether the other performers faced cases under the same law. He explained that the purpose of the protest was to draw attention to what he called the “extrajudicial killings of civilians in Rakhine” and to seek justice “for the deaths of civilians in army detention.”

He added, “No matter what they charge us with, we are ready to face the verdict in court. We don’t regret what we have done, as our aim is to find justice for innocent civilians.”