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Ten Arakanese activists, who face up to one year in jail for staging an “unlawful” protest against a controversial China-backed oil and gas pipeline, appeared in court in western Burma on Monday.
According to a local observer, all ten defendants attended the hearing in a Kyaukpyu court in Arakan state, where testimonies from the prosecutor, the township’s police superintendent, were presented. The next hearing was set for 27 May.
The ten activists were arrested and charged in late April after organising an unauthorised protest against the Shwe Gas Pipeline — a joint venture between a state-owned Chinese company and the military-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) — which campaigners say has caused mass displacement and environmental destruction.
Last month, one of the defendants told DVB that they had sought permission to protest three times before, but their requests were repeatedly denied.
So on 18 April, over 400 locals in Arakan state’s Kyaukpyu township rallied against the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) demanding that the company take responsibility for the damages caused to their livelihoods and local environment.
They were subsequently arrested for violating section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law 2012, which requires a permit for demonstrations, and has been used to target dozens of human rights activists in Burma over the past year. It carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and 300,000 kyat (US$345) fine.
According to one of the defendants, Htun Kyi, local authorities had initially promised to help them negotiate with the company over their demands, but later backtracked on their pledge.
Htun Lwin, a member of the Rakhine (Arakan) Social Network, who observed the hearing, told DVB that it had previously been scheduled for Thursday of this week, but the court decided to fast-track the hearing at the last minute.
It follows a previous delay in the process, prompted by hundreds of locals — who also participated in the April protest — showing up to a 6 May court hearing in a display of solidarity and demanding to be charged too.
Leading human rights group have called on the government to drop the charges, which they say violate international legal standards.
“Peaceful protesters should not face prison time for exercising their basic rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By jailing peaceful protesters, the Burmese government is creating a new class of political prisoners. No genuinely reformist leadership would oversee the prosecution of people who peacefully challenge the state’s development plans.”
The controversial Shwe Gas Pipeline, which is scheduled for completion in late May, will pump gas from Arakan state to China’s Yunnan province, slicing through many ethnic minority territories, including the conflict-torn Shan and Kachin states. A twin pipeline will transport oil from the Middle East and Africa to the energy-hungry Asian superpower.
Activists have warned that the project has led to mass confiscations of local farmlands, forced labour, human rights abuses and increased militarisation across the country. Earlier this month, a government official warned that ongoing clashes in northern Burma are likely to delay the first shipments of oil and gas to China.