Three students from the Arakan Students’ Union who protested outside the compound of the Arakan State government offices were arrested on September 9 and remanded under Section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law, a provision that carries with it a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
The use of the law to target the students’ peaceful protest has raised eyebrows as critics contend that legal action, if it is to be taken at all, should come under the more aptly suited Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
DMG reporter Aung Htein recently interviewed lawyers, students and other activists about the case before the court.
Phone Pyae Myo, vice chair of the Sittwe University Students’ Union
What I see in the case is authorities are using the law they want to use. They might have opened a lawsuit against the three student protestors under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, or the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.
But they have opened a lawsuit against the students under the Natural Disaster Management Law. If the lawsuit had been opened under the first two laws, the students would be granted bail. The law they are currently using to open the lawsuit against the students can issue remand.
So, we need to know their intentions; whether they just want to keep the students in detention. I see authorities are making strategic use of the law in Myanmar.
Daw Hla Hla Yee, lawyer for the Legal Clinic Myanmar
I generally want to say the lawsuit against the students should be opened under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. A [charging] section of a lawsuit should be consistent with someone’s actions, otherwise it amounts to oppressing the accused. A defendant should be charged under a law that is related to his/her action, in accordance with fair trial rights and human rights.
U Zaw Zaw Min, Higher Grade Pleader, Arakan Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Association
I think authorities are using the Natural Disaster Management Law because they do not want to grant bail. Firstly, they opened the lawsuit under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
Police detained them for more than 24 hours and applied at the nearby court to be remanded. The case is in the hands of police now. Police will investigate the case and ask for advice from the law officer. If the law officer recommends charging them under the law, they will be charged under the law. We think they will [ultimately] be charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. The law they have been charged with is not related to what they did.
Ko Than Hla, youth leader from the Rakhine Youth New Generation Network
There was no crowd while they were protesting. And they wore masks and gloves. The lawsuit against them is not related to their actions. So, I think the government is wicked. They should be charged under Section 19 of Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law [covering an obligation to inform authorities in advance of a planned protest].
Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung, Athan free expression advocacy group
There are two parts. One is related to the COVID-19 outbreak. There are orders, instructions and regulations imposed across the country for COVID-19 prevention. But we found that those regulations are used to oppress people politically.
The government tries to shrink the people’s space and inclusion in politics using the pandemic as pretext.
For political parties’ organising activities, crowds can be made; the government allows political parties to organise up to 50 people. But people cannot be organised for protest. If students, workers or people protest, the government charges them even if there are only three people. What I want to say is the government oppresses people using COVID-19 as a pretext.
The government is found making moves to increase its control and power by shrinking the people’s space. The current government and the current military show different kinds of oppression of people in the civil war in Arakan State. The government cut internet access in Arakan State. It bans websites. It charges people who protest against the internet and website bans. Some protestors are sent to jail.
Students who protested recently to end the war in Arakan State demanded to restore the internet. They called for the military to stop committing crimes. They said they do not have faith in the Arakan State government. The government has opened a lawsuit against them now.
The government does not listen to the voices of the people. It is doing what it wants to do and the military is also doing what it wants to do, neglecting people’s voices.