Guest Column

Myanmar Rubbing Salt into its Own Wounds

By Joe Kumbun 10 December 2018

The recent verdict in the trial of three Kachin activists, namely Lum Zawng, Nang Pu and Zau Jat, only serves to increase international pressure on Myanmar. On Friday, the Myitkyina courts sentenced the three activists to six months’ imprisonment and handed them a 500,000-kyat fine each.

Earlier this year, when fighting raged between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIO), thousands of ethnic Kachin were trapped in the jungle after fleeing their homes. In a bid to have the trapped men, women and children rescued, Christian leaders, hundreds of civil society organizations and displaced individuals sent letters of appeal to President U Win Myint, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the army commander-in-chief and other leaders.

In response to these letters, the country’s leadership did nothing. This inaction led to a mass demonstration held by Kachin youths in Myitkyina on April 30. The protest spilled over into other states, regions and even foreign countries such as the US and Japan.

Not only were the appeals for help shunned, but the authorities also launched a crackdown against the demonstrators, arresting many and charging them as having committed unlawful acts. According to data collected by the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, 45 demonstrators were sued by the police and Tatmadaw on the grounds of violating the country’s peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and defamation laws.

These three Kachin activists were sued by Lt-Col Myo Min Oo of the Northern Reginal Command under section 500 of the Penal Code on May 8. On Friday, after seven months of trial the court finally sentenced the three activists to six months in prison and fined them 500,000 kyats. They will each have to serve an additional six months if they fail to pay the fine.

Responding to the court’s verdict, later the same day a group of Kachin youth gathered outside the courthouse and marched towards Manau Park, demanding justice for the three. Surprisingly, Myitkyina Township police charged three leaders of this demonstration, namely Sut Seng Htoi, Seng Hkum Awng, and Brang Mai.

Many people were disillusioned by not only the appalling verdict against three peaceful activists, but also by the suing of three more activists. In response, hundreds of civil society organizations, rights groups, political parties, embassies and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the EU Delegation to Myanmar, have decried the court’s verdict and called on the government to quash the decision.

Myanmar now stands at a critical juncture where the government and the Tatmadaw need to face the international pressure that has arisen from both the plight of the Rohingya and the severe human rights violations that have occurred across Kachin and Shan states.

On top of the stalemated peace process, weak rule of law, corruption, land confiscations, an economic downturn and the decay of freedom of assembly, international pressure has become an onerous burden for the government and the Tatmadaw. The imprisonment of these three Kachin activists now adds further international pressure on Myanmar.

But the Kachin won’t back down: thousands are expected to join a rally planned in Myitkyina on Tuesday to demand the release of the three activists.

Thus, the government and the Tatmadaw should show magnanimity and morality by accepting the people’s demands and quashing the convictions of the three activists and by dropping charges against who demonstrated on Friday. The failure to do so will only result in the government itself rubbing salt into its own wounds.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.