Social Network Activists Arrested After Supporting Farmers in Pegu Division

By Land Rights, Zarni Mann 12 June 2013

RANGOON—Three Burmese activists involved in social network groups have been detained for allegedly participating in illegal associations after showing support for farmers who plowed land confiscated by the police and military in Pegu Division.

The activists from the Nattalin Social Network and the Meikhtila Social Network were detained on Tuesday after visiting Pae Ma Khan village in Pegu Division’s Nattalin Township as an act of solidarity for the farmers, whose land was seized nearly 20 years ago by the Burma Army and Nattalin Police.

During their visit to the village, Myint Myint Aye, Khin Mi Mi Khine and Thant Zin Htet watched the farmers plow to offer encouragement but did not participate in the plowing themselves. They say the police went to the fields at the same time and began plowing alongside the farmers, in a bid to demonstrate that the police controlled the land.

The three activists were summoned to Nattalin Township Court for questioning and were later arrested and detained at Paung Dae Prison on Tuesday for allegedly violating the Unlawful Association Act, which requires social organizations to register with the government.

The police initially tried to file charges against the activists for allegedly trespassing and deterring authorities from taking action against the farmers, local residents say. However, the charges were changed after one of the activists pointed out that police officers had also plowed the land illegally, because some of the land belonged to the military and some had been leased out to other farmers who had not given the police permission to plow.

“Thant Zin Htet explained that the court must also take action against the police who plowed on the confiscated land, so authorities changed the charge,” said Yin Kyi, a community leader from Pae Ma Khan village.

The police say the Nattalin Social Network and Meikhtila Social Network are illegal because they are not registered with the government, but the activists and their supporters say the networks are not associations at all because they do not have a meeting space and simply function through mobile and online communication.

“They [the activists] are not from an association,” said Yin Kyi. “They are just from a network that cooperated to help promote the rights of farmers.”

He said he and other residents would push for the release of the activists.

“We tried to pay bail but the township judge said she could not allow [release on] bail in this case,” he said, adding that the judge urged him to wait for a decision from the district court. “We will work together with the lawyers for the release of these people who helped us.”

Farmers from Pegu Division told The Irrawaddy that authorities were also planning to file charges against the farmers who plowed the confiscated land.

Meanwhile, in Tharzi Township, Mandalay Division, 18 farmers are on trial for allegedly plowing on 3,000 acres of land confiscated by a state-owned factory for canned foods. A leader of that protest, Ma Thandar, has been detained since May and faces at least six months in prison.