Local farmers from Thegon, Pegu Division, started brawling with police outside Paungde prison on Tuesday, after a court hearing led to five persons being charged with defamation of the state.
The five – Thant Zin Htet, Pauk Sa, Daw Nyo, Daw Mone and Kyaw Thu – were arrested after staging a public protest and charged under Article 505(b) of Burma’s penal code, which punishes anyone who “makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report, with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.”
The protestors were summoned to the hearing at Thegone Township court on Tuesday after they conducted a ritual invoking a curse upon the government, which involved burning a coffin at a shrine.
Local man Pauk Sa was refused bail and remains in custody.
After the hearing, Pauk Sa was sent to Paungde Prison, and it was outside the prison gates where villagers started scuffling with police.
During the fracas, Daw Win, who is currently on trial for charges relating to a separate case of protesting without permission, suffered a head injury and was taken to a nearby hospital. She was joined by Pauk Sa’s wife, who collapsed in a state of shock.
The Thegone villagers are demanding the return of more than 1,000 acres of confiscated farmland, which they say was taken from them by the military in 1997.
On 14 February, their rally was forcibly dispersed by police. Subsequently, four farmers, including Daw Win and Pauk Sa, were charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, for breaking Chapter 3 – conducting a protest without official permission. Their trials are ongoing.
As payback for the Article 18 charges, several Thegone villagers performed a ritual cursing the authorities.
“On 3 May, the court sent us a summons letter to hear the charges against us – Article 505(b) – for performing a ritual and invoking a curse,” said one of the five accused, Thant Zin Htet. “We have been charged for ‘defaming the state’ by conducting this ritual at a town spirit shrine. It was a protest against land confiscation.”
Thant Zin Htet went on to say that the villagers would defend themselves from the charges first, but then would not give up protesting until their lands are returned.