Eight women’s rights activists were found guilty of unlawful assembly in Chin State, western Burma, on Wednesday for their participation in a demonstration against sexual violence.
The activists — Ngun Chin Par, Sui Sui Kyi, Kaw Htwe, Khin Khin Zi, Thang Zing, Khin Thluai Par, Maung Han and Tei Maung — were ordered to either pay a 30,000 kyat (US$30) fine or serve one-month prison sentences.
“A guilty verdict on the defendants was passed by the court on 23 July, with a sentence of either one month in prison or 30,000 kyat fine,” said Mai T Sui Leng, the director of Women’s Hand Myanmar Foundation, an NGO that has been assisting the group throughout their trial. “Our foundation has offered to pay the fines for each of them.”
While her foundation has pledged financial support to avoid the prison sentences, Mai T Sui Leng stressed that they are very disappointed with the courts for targeting activists instead of sexual offenders.
“We want to see effective legal action against the soldier who committed violence against a woman,” she said.
On 24 June, two demonstrations were held in Chin State in response to the alleged attempted rape of a 55-year-old woman by a Burma Army soldier from Light Infantry Battalion No. 269. About 400 people were said to have turned out in Rezua, while another 200 gathered in Matupi.
Authorities in both towns denied requests for permission to hold demonstrations, and the organisers — four from Rezua and four from Matupi — were subsequently charged for the violation of Burma’s controversial Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act, which contains provisions criminalising unauthorised gatherings.
Rights groups have condemned the charges from the outset, urging the government to immediately drop the case and investigate sexual war crimes. The Chin Human Rights Organisation said that they have documented multiple cases of sexual violence committed in the remote state since President Thein Sein took power in 2011. The group said that the frequency and severity of abuses warrants an international investigation “in order to deter further violations and help end the culture of impunity.”
Similarly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the international community to put pressure on the Burmese government to acquit the demonstrators and take meaningful action towards ending military impunity.
“The military has long frowned on the citizenry calling for transparent justice, particularly in a case they’d rather sweep under the rug,” HRW said in a 9 July press statement. While commending the government for signing onto a UN commitment to ending sexual crimes in conflict, the group said that the country’s leaders will need a “change of mindset” to make that promise a reality.
The first step, said Mai T Sui Leng, is to make the justice system more transparent. Crimes allegedly committed by soldiers are brought to military trials, which some say offers inherent protection to the accused.
“We would like the trial to be conducted at a civilian court rather than military trial,” Mai T Sui Leng said of the accused officer. “We want to know how he will be punished.”