All six Karenni ethnic rights activists facing prosecution over their opposition to a statue of General Aung San in Loikaw appeared in court together for the first time in the state capital on Monday.
Five of the six turned themselves in on June 21 after being sought by police for more than a month, joining one who was already in custody.
Police charged the six under Article 10 of the Citizens Privacy and Security Law on May 17 over accusations they made against the Kayah State chief minister in relation to the installation of the statue in the state capital. They accused those involved in putting up the statue of being political criminals, traitors to the Karenni people and enemies of ethnic unity.
The six detained activists are Myo Hlaing Win, Dee De, Khun Thomas, Khu Reedu, Phyar Lay and Khu Kyu Peh Kay.
Kyaw Htin Aung, a Loikaw-based rights activist, told The Irrawaddy that all six appeared in court on Monday. He said an investigation into the six had yet to begin, adding that they were ordered to appear before the court again on July 3.
The judge rejected their request to be granted bail, saying the violation they are accused of is not a bailable offense.
In March, the six rights activists issued a statement against Kayah State Chief Minister L Phaung Sho and Minister of Planning and Finance U Maw Maw. At the time, the chief minister did not take action against them, but after negotiations over protesters’ demands that the statue be removed collapsed in May, he ordered officials to open cases against them.
The six activists went into hiding, but one was arrested on June 2. He was detained in prison in Loikaw, while the other five right activists continued to hide from police.
However, the five later informed police that they could come to arrest them at an event to celebrate Karenni National Day on June 21 in Loikaw, which they attended.
After their appearance in court today, detained activist Khun Thomas told media representatives that the charge was unfair.
He said they would continue to fight for justice, and were hopeful of victory.
The Kayah State government has largely ignored strong local opposition to the statue and refused activists’ requests to remove the monument.
“It is time for our people to fight for our rights. We are living under a government that only knows how to take action against the people, and to charge the people,” Khun Thomas said.
Many local people see the government’s decision to prosecute the activists over a statement as excessively harsh. In solidarity with the six, nearly 100 youth signed a separate statement similarly critical of the chief minister. So far, the state government has not responded.
Opposition to the statue emerged as soon as the state government announced the plan in February last year. Local residents staged a large protest in July, which saw some rights activists arrested for protesting without asking permission.
The state government spent over 100 million kyats to build the statue, according to some local rights activists. Instead of building the statue, opponents have called on the state government to build a park.
Karenni ethnic rights activists say they have their own history emphasizing ethnic Karenni figures, and that the statue of Gen. Aung San is a symbol of ethnic Burmese dominance. To them, it’s also a symbol of what they see as the yet-unfulfilled promises made by the assassinated general and the Panglong Agreement of 1947.
“They do not understand the federal system. Their action could disrupt the peace process, but they don’t think about that,” said Kyaw Htin Aung, adding that the statue could cause political instability.
The government says it stands with the people, but this isn’t true in reality, he said.
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