The baseless criminal proceedings against Kachin youth leaders Seng Nu Pan and Paw Lu for their role in a gathering commemorating the war in northern Myanmar underscores the hostility to freedom of expression and assembly routinely exhibited by the Myanmar government and military. An upcoming ruling by a criminal court provides an opportunity for the judiciary to demonstrate its independence and uphold the right to peaceful assembly.
“It is absurd that the government continues to trumpet its peacebuilding efforts while simultaneously prosecuting and jailing young people calling for peace,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Respect for human rights and the rule of law fly out the window the minute an activist or artist dares to raise issues concerning the military and armed conflict.”
On 10 June 2019, Myitkyina police charged Kachin youth leaders Seng Nu Pan and Paw Lu under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act in relation to their role in organising a commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Kachin State held the day before. The gathering aimed to raise awareness of the plight of internally displaced persons and included a re-enactment of an aerial bombing. The organisers reported that they had discussed the event in advance with police officers at the local station, who gave them permission to proceed with the event. However, they said that police later arrived at the event and demanded it be discontinued, citing their failure to disclose that a drama performance would occur. Following negotiations, the event was moved to another location. According to the organisers, in court, authorities testified that the youth leaders failed to notify authorities in line with section 4 of the Act.
A hearing on 26 August marked Seng Nu Pan and Paw Lu’s eleventh appearance at the Myitkyina Township Court. A ruling is expected at the next hearing on 2 September. If convicted, they face fines of up to 30,000 kyat each, 3 months’ imprisonment, or both.
Myanmar authorities have repeatedly violated the right to freedom of expression by prosecuting activists, journalists and others speaking out against government misconduct and human rights abuses. Those criticising the military have faced especially swift and severe consequences. A report by Athan, a youth-led freedom of expression organization, highlighted a dramatic increase in recent months in the number of cases initiated by the military against individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.
In December 2018, Kachin youth activists Nang Pu, Lum Zawng, and Zau Ja were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment under section 500 of the Penal Code in relation to an anti-war protest in Myitkyina. In April 2019, seven members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe were charged under section 505(a) of the Penal Code for a performance satirizing the military. On 29 August, filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was convicted under the same Penal Code provision and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment in relation to Facebook posts criticising the military and its role in Myanmar politics. Authorities have also arrested and charged anti-war protesters in Yangon and Mandalay Regions and Kachin and Kayah States.
Human rights groups have highlighted the continued failure to properly implement 2016 amendments to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. By law, those assembling need only give notice of a planned gathering to police, rather than obtain their permission. However, in practice, authorities continue to apply the law arbitrarily, with reports that authorities treat the notification requirement as a de facto requirement to obtain permission.
Proposed amendments to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act that were passed by the Upper House of Parliament in 2018 would further limit the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, imposing criminal penalties on those who provoke, persuade or urge others to join protests by providing money to protesters, and requiring the advance disclosure of the sources of funding for protests. It is not currently clear if or when the amending legislation will be considered by the Lower House of Parliament.
“The government needs to halt the targeted prosecution of activists and critics, but shouldn’t stop there,” said Matthew Bugher. “Myanmar’s legal framework needs an overhaul to bring it in line with international standards relating to freedom of expression and assembly. Removing content-based restrictions on protests and criminal liability for failure to notify authorities in advance of protests would be a good starting point.”