Myanmar: Imprisoning Than Than Maw worsens gender-based violation of free expression

ARTICLE 19 condemns the extended trial, and illegitimate sentencing, of Than Than Maw who, after meeting with journalists, has been imprisoned for four months, together with her baby, under a law on protesting without permission. 

“It is clear that Than Than Maw has faced a completely disproportionate trial and been given an illegitimate sentence, simply as a way to spread fear among human rights defenders and activists like herself and her husband, who is also serving an 11-year term for peaceful protest,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

“This sentence instils a worse chilling effect on Myanmar women, deterring them from speaking out in future for fear that any children they have will in effect be punished alongside them. International standards are clear that handing down prison sentences to women with children for non-violent ‘crimes’ is not acceptable,” he added.

Than Than Maw was charged on 16 October 2014 under Article 18 of the ‘Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act’ for meeting with journalists in downtown Yangon on 10 October, while holding a photo of her well-known husband, stating that she had been denied permission to meet him.

Than Than Maw was sentenced to four months imprisonment on 22 February at Kyautdadar Township Court after an extended trial, lasting more than one-year, which included 16 appearances in court, purportedly delayed because of her responsibilities for her one-year old child, who is now accompanying her in prison.

In cases of non-violent crimes, international standards state that prosecutors and judges should seek non-custodial sentences for women that are pregnant or caring for small children or babies in order not to punish them disproportionately and not to violate the rights of their child.[1] As a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Myanmar is also obligated to prevent gender-based violence, including by the state.

Than Than Maw’s husband, Ko Htin Kyaw, is a well-known leader of the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF) and is currently serving a prison sentence of 11 years and four months, handed down to him in 2014 under the same Article 18 for protesting without permission, and Penal Code Article 505(b) for intent to cause ‘fear or alarm to the public … whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state’.

Article 18 and Article 505(b) are still regularly used in Myanmar to punish human rights defenders, political activists, and often general members of the public without any affiliation, for protesting against corruption or injustice. ARTICLE 19 calls on the government to replace these Articles requiring protests to request permission with a notification regime in line with international law.

Than Than Maw’s lawyer, Kyi Thar Phone Myint, is concerned that this decision broadens the definition of ‘protest’ to include anyone simply meeting with the media.

“This case is different to other Article 18 cases as normally the defendant has a chance to state whether they were protesting or not, but Than Than Maw was clear that she was only meeting journalists … unfortunately however the court ruled that she was protesting on the basis of photographic evidence showing her holding up a photo of her husband when meeting the journalists,” said Kyi Thar Phone Myint. He added “We should re-think whether or not the purpose of Article 18 [which requires people to gain permission to protest] meets a real need.”

ARTICLE 19 urges the government to amend laws regulating protest and revise sentencing guidelines to make them more proportionate and equitable.

[1] United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders [Bangkok Rules], reproduced in E.S.C. Res. 2010/16, Annex, U.N. Doc. E/RES/2010/16 (July 22, 2010).  See also Recommendation (f), Report of the Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, Presented by Hon. Commissioner Med S.K Kaggwa at the 52nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, 9 – 22 October 2012. Also see the Gomel Declaration on the Execution of Punishments for Women (2007). Also see Penal Reform International, Briefing No.3 on Women in Prison. See also: UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, 9 December 1988, A/RES/43/173. Also see UN Handbook on Women and Imprisonment, 2014.