RANGOON — Two student leaders charged with protesting illegally and inciting public alarm attended their first hearing on Wednesday at two Rangoon township courts, where the accused declined the presiding judge’s bail offer on grounds that their prosecution is unjust.
Zeyar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu, who helped lead a student protest calling on military parliamentarians to relinquish their formidable political power on June 30, have been charged under Article 505(b) of Burma’s Penal Code as well as the controversial Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.
“They declined to put up bail when the justice asked,” said Zaw Lin Htut, information officer for the Confederation of University Student Unions (CUSU).
He told The Irrawaddy that the Kyauktada and Pebedan township courts would first prosecute the students under Article 505(b), which criminalizes anyone who “makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public.”
The students’ Rangoon protest last month focused its criticism on the military’s constitutionally guaranteed allotment of 25 percent of seats in Parliament.
A third student leader, Nan Lin, was also charged in connection with the Rangoon protest and remains at large. Wednesday’s brief hearing was adjourned in the hope that by the time the next trial date arrives on July 24, the third defendant will have been apprehended or turned himself in.
“Zeyar Lwin said at the entrance of the courthouse that it is unfair to charge with Article 505[b] and that they are not guilty and wouldn’t take bail at the court,” said Zaw Lin Htut.
Addressing what has appeared in recent months to be a disagreement over what approach Burma’s two main student groups should take in their push for education reform, Zeyar Lwin appealed for unity outside the courthouse on Wednesday.
The two groups, the CUSU and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), have been at odds over to what degree they should engage with a government that has repeatedly disappointed them in their demand for reform of the country’s education system.
With dozens of students from both groups now sharing cells in Rangoon and northeast in Pegu Division, Zeyar Lwin said CUSU and ABFSU students had reached common ground.
Paing Ye Thu urged students who were not behind bars to continue their protest work.
Paing Ye Thu was detained by police on July 3, the same day arrest warrants were also issued for Zeyar Lwin and Nan Lin. Zeyar Lwin was arrested four days later during an event held at Rangoon University commemorating a military crackdown on students at the campus more than five decades ago.
On Tuesday, nine students and three supporters including Tin Win, who is recovering from a recent throat surgery, were granted bail by the Tharrawaddy Township Court in Pegu Divison, where about 70 students are facing charges for their months-long protest against Burma’s National Education Law.
More than 100 students and supporters staging a peaceful protest in Letpadan, Pegu Division, were victims of a brutal police crackdown on March 10. Many of the victims were subsequently charged under several Penal Code articles including 505(b) and have since been transferred to the Tharrawaddy penitentiary, where they have complained of a range of health problems attributable to poor prison conditions.
Some of the charges brought against the protestors carry penalties of up to three years in prison.
With Tuesday’s releases on bail, 51 students and supporters remain behind bars at Tharrawaddy prison, with their next court hearing scheduled for July 21.
Additional reporting by May Sitt Paing.