January 21, 2020
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Little Change

Arrest of activist indicates speaking out against big business interests still taboo

The imprisonment of a leading activist in Myanmar raises questions about the sincerity of the government’s reform agenda and whether natural resource extraction projects will get precedence over the rights of the people.

Naw Ohn Hla, a leading woman activist from Yangon, joined over 50 villagers in Monywa, Sagaing Region, on August 13 to call for the suspension of the controversial Chinese-run Latpadaung Copper Mine and to amend the 2008 Constitution. After a tense stand-off and a lot of shouting, police moved in to arrest Naw Ohn Hla and nine other protest leaders, forcefully dragging them into police trucks. So violently was Naw Ohn Hla seized that her clothing was partially pulled off.

On August 29, Naw Ohn Hla was found guilty of disturbing public tranquility under Section 505(b) of the Myanmar Penal Code and sentenced two years in prison with hard labor. And she also remained to be tried under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for allegedly holding a protest without permission. She had requested official permission prior to the protest but was refused.

The Women’ Initiative Network for Peace (WIN-Peace) has called for the immediate release of Naw Ohn Hla and the nine other women who were arrested following the peaceful protest.

Ms. Thanda of the network told Mizzima Business Weekly that they strongly object to the harassment and behavior of the authorities and police officers when they were arresting the women.

She said that their organization planned to launch a signature campaign not only for the arrested activists but any people who have been imprisoned unfairly.

Naw Ohn Hla is not a newcomer to protests. As a former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, she led prayer services for democracy activists hoping for the release of Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. All in all, Naw Ohn Hla has been imprisoned more than seven times since 1989 for her efforts to free political prisoners and assist Buddhist monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution uprising and her links to the NLD.

Ba Htoo, one of the activists at Latpadaung commented: “The government detains and arrests some activists while freeing prominent and long-term political prisoners as part of their reform process. This represents the tricky actions of senior policy makers. The protestors don’t have any rights to defend themselves in accordance with the law.”

He said he has mixed positive and negative views on the certain role of Aung San Su Kyi who oversaw an inquiry into a crackdown on Latpadaung mine protestors that led to many injuries, including the alleged use of phosphorus as a riot deterrent.

“The investigative committee led by Aung San Suu Kyi made the suggestion that the mine project should continue operating without considering the environmental concerns. The commission failed to advise the government to take action against government officials who committed crimes against the peaceful protesters,” he said.

The commission pointed out that local residents in the project areas did not receive adequate land compensation from the mining company, and called for transparency in terms of the contract, he said.

Ba Htoo claims little has change from the bad old days of the former military regime.

“Arresting those activists (in this latest incident) means that the quasi-civilian government still behaves and practices old and terrible actions,” he said.

Susanna Hla Hla Soe, head of the Women Organization Network of Myanmar, and cited in a press release from the NGO WIN-Peace, claimed disappointment with the developments: “We are seeing a series of cases of judicial harassment and violence against women human rights defenders and peaceful protestors all around Myanmar, which is very disappointing and disheartening. It is vital that women play a front-line role in defending the rights of their
communities, and the Myanmar authorities must allow them the space to do so.”

Critics say that although the government has been releasing political prisoners in well-publicized gestures, activists are also being locked up. This raises the question of whether the political and business elites continue to have precedence over the rights of people, communities and the environment, they say. Naw Ohn Hla’s incarceration indicates little has changed when it comes to freedom of speech under the “reformist” administration of President Thein Sein.

This article first appeared in the September 12 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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