RANGOON — Three Rangoon-based human rights activists said on Thursday that Sagaing Division authorities want to arrest them because they spoke out against the government’s treatment of farmers who oppose the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma.
Wai Lu and Wai Hmuu Twin of the Yangon People Service Network and Generation Wave activist Moe Thway said Sagaing Division authorities had accused them on June 13 of making statements with the intention of alarming the public or inducing someone to commit an offence against the government.
The charge under Penal Code Article 505 (b) was lodged at Monywa Township Court and carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
“If they come for us we are not going to run,” Wai Lu told reporters during a press conference held at the 88 Generation Students office in Rangoon on Thursday. “I was just told this morning that police were on the way to arrest us,” he added.
The trio said they were being prosecuted for remarks they made during an interview with local media in Monywa Township in early May. “We heard that the police were going to arrest us because of what we said to the media, which had disrespected the authorities,” Moe Thway said.
Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners also attended the press conference and he condemned authorities for prosecuting the trio. He added that despite the government’s promises of reform “authorities continue to arrest more political activists.”
An officer at No. 1 Monwa Township Police Station told The Irrawaddy that the decision to prosecute the activists was made by local commanders.
“I presented the [interview] recording to my boss and he said that there were some words that disrespect the state. So, I was instructed to issue an arrest warrant for these activists,” said the officer, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.
During the interview, the activists had criticized local authorities for issuing an order under Article 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to prohibit villagers from accessing or using their farmlands.
On Thursday, the trio stood by their criticism. “No one should be arrested under Article 144 anymore because our country is in a stage of transition to democracy. Under the military regime people were always arrested under this charge,” said Wai Lu.
The Asian Human Rights Commission said in a paper in November that the use of the measure in Monwa is unlawful as only a judge can issue such an order.
Hundreds of farmers from 26 villages in the Monwa area have lost about 3,000 hectares (7,800 acres) of land to the huge copper mine and for the past year or so they have been protesting against the project.
A parliamentary commission, chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released a report in March urging the affected farmers to accept a compensation offer from the mining companies — Chinese state-owned company Wanbao and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.
The local farmers however, have rejected the report and their continuing protests have led to confrontations with authorities.
On April 25, they began plowing their fields in protest, but local authorities quickly appeared on the scene to stop the farmers. Five farmers and a local activist were arrested and charged under Article 144, while others were reportedly beaten and shot at.
It was not the first time that local authorities have cracked down on protests against the mine. On Nov. 29, police carried out a sudden raid on a large group of farmers and Buddhist monks who were holding a sit-down protest outside the mining company’s office.
Police shot smoke-generating incendiary devices into the camp, causing severe burns among about 100 monks and villagers. No officials have so far been held accountable for the incident.