More than 150 civil society organisations have released a statement condemning Burma’s judiciary for handing down a two-year prison sentence to former child soldier Aung Ko Htwe.
The convict, now 27, was sentenced last week on an incitement charge after he shared his story of forced conscription with the news outlet Radio Free Asia last year. He was forcibly recruited into the army, known locally as the Tatmadaw, when he was 14 years old.
“Myanmar is a member of the United Nations and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC] on 15 July, 1991. Aung Ko Htwe was conscripted in 2005 and put through arduous training as a child soldier, which is in violation of the ratified convention, by one of the nation’s lawful entities,” according to the statement from the CSOs released on 1 April.
It continues: “Also, filing lawsuits against Aung Ko Htwe for [his] recounting of forced conscription to the media outlet is suppression of freedom of expression by use of authority, which we believe is [another] violation of basic human rights.”
Aung Ko Htwe was arrested on 18 August, about one week after his interview was published by Radio Free Asia.
“We have determined that by speaking to media about forced conscription and arduous training as a child soldier, Aung Ko Htwe was merely exercising his rights as a citizen, as set forth in the Constitution’s Chapter 8: ‘Citizens, Citizens’ Fundamental Rights and Duties,’ Article 354[a], regarding the right to express and publish convictions and opinions freely. Thus, it is not violating the law,” the statement further reads.
Aung Ko Htwe’s legal woes initially stemmed from a case brought against him by Lieutenant Colonel Myo Myint Aung, who accused him of violating the dignity of the Tatmadaw and ultimately led to a charge under section 505(b) of the Penal Code, a provision broadly covering public incitement.
He was given the maximum sentence allowable under 505(b), at the same hearing last month at which it was revealed that a Dagon Seikkan Township police major had filed an additional lawsuit against the defendant under section 7 of the Union Seal Law. That pending charge is for allegedly stepping on a copy of the 2008 Constitution in the courthouse during a hearing in January.
The plaintiff is alleging that in doing so, the defendant violated the 2010 Union Seal Act, which includes a provision against desecration of the Union seal. Under section 7 of the law, Aung Ko Htwe faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison if found guilty of the added charge.
The 154 CSOs that signed on to Sunday’s statement — including Equality Myanmar, the National Network for Education Reform, PEN Myanmar and the Kachin Peace Network — are demanding the immediate release of Aung Ko Htwe. The coalition is also urging that the 505(b) conviction handed down against him on 28 March and the pending Union Seal Act charge be unconditionally dropped.