Burmese authorities have issued arrest warrants against three local activists, who recently told reporters in central Burma that an emergency decree, which hands sweeping powers to the military near a controversial copper mine project, should be revoked.
The trio has been accused of “insulting” local police and face charges of “inciting unrest”, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, after they criticised the government’s use of emergency powers near the Latpadaung copper mine in Monywa during an interview with local journalists last month.
One of the activists, Moe Thway, told DVB that the police have threatened to hunt them down in Rangoon unless they report to the local authorities in Monywa voluntarily. “They said that we can either go there and get arrested or they will come here,” he said, speaking by telephone from the former capital on Monday.
The three activists have played a vocal role in calling for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis in Monywa, where disgruntled locals continue to oppose to development of the military-backed Latpadaung project. In mid-May, Moe Thway and his two friends, Wai Lu and Wai Hmuu Thwin, travelled to the restive town in a bid to help “restore calm” after a renewed outbreak of clashes.
“We didn’t do anything related to protesting or breaking any laws, the only thing we did was have an interview with the media,” he explained. “We really have to worry now if people can be arrested for just making comments in an interview.”
The news comes as a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) accused the government of “faltering” on media reforms. The report says that “many threats and obstacles” to free speech remain entrenched in Burmese politics, citing evidence of government efforts to introduce new restrictive publishing laws.
“This legal harassment of activists poses a major threat to the sincerity of the democratic transition of the country,” Khin Ohmar from Burma Partnership told DVB. “A real democracy must guarantee freedom of expression for all of its citizens, not only those who agree with the government and authorities.”
Moe Thway speculated that he is being pursued for his activism relating to the Latpadaung mine, which rose to notoriety last year when police led a bloody pre-dawn raid on protestors, causing dozens of monks to suffer life-threatening burns and injuries. The emergency decree, or section 144 of the code of criminal procedure, which has been in place in the area since July last year, was used as the legal basis for the crackdown.
The Latpadaung project is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Wanbao Mining – a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer, Norinco. The project has previously been described as a “cash for arms” deal between China and the former military junta, and has become a crucial test for the reformist regime.
In March, a government-backed investigation into the Latpadaung controversy, led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, warned that unilaterally suspending the project could damage Burma’s relationship with China. The commission’s report drew ire from many locals, who have described it as a “white-wash” and continue to demand a complete halt to the project.
Although President Thein Sein has been credited for introducing dramatic reforms in the former pariah state, activists say that land grabs are on the rise and existing laws still curtail the right to protest. Dozens of peaceful activists have been sentenced to jail over the past year for breaching the government’s regulations on staging peaceful protests.
Moe Thway is currently facing several other trials across a number of courts in Burma for staging “unlawful” protests against the November crackdown. He now faces an additional two years in jail under section 505b of Burma’s penal code, which was used to imprison hundreds of democracy activists during military rule.