Ten local residents in Arakan state’s Kyaukphyu township were sentenced to three months in jail on Thursday for staging an unauthorised protest against a controversial China-backed gas pipeline.
The demonstration was held on Maday Island in mid-April and attracted support from over 500 locals, who say the 800km pipeline linking Arakan state to China’s Yunnan province has fuelled wide-scale environmental destruction and human rights abuses, while bringing few benefits.
The group, led by Htun Kyi, was arrested a few days later and charged with protesting without permission under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
“The verdict was passed around 2pm in the afternoon: three months in prison with labour for each of the defendants,” the group’s lawyer Htein Linn told DVB, adding that his defendants had applied for permission to protest four times but it was repeatedly declined.
Subsequently the protestors decided to proceed anyway and marched to the offices of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which operates the pipeline, where they issued a list of demands.
The government has reportedly justified rejecting their applications on the basis of Section 144 of the criminal procedures code – an emergency decree introduced after last year’s ethno-religious clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. But campaigners say it is only “selectively enforced” to silence peaceful dissent.
Over 600 locals from around 17 villages in Kyaukphyu turned up in court on Thursday, and began chanting for the authorities to release the defendants immediately after the verdict was announced.
“The protest was joined by pretty much by every resident on the island but in the end, only 10 got sentenced,” said a local woman in front of the courthouse. “Now all 500 of us are here and we will not leave this spot until they are released.”
Opponents of the pipeline have demanded compensation for confiscated land, the right to fish near the island, and for the company to provide job opportunities to the local community.
But Maung Aye, a local resident and chairperson of the Kyaukphyu Development Committee, said that so far only two of the nine demands made by the protestors in April have been met by CNPC.
“So far, they have [only] begun providing electricity for residents in the region and the government is now building a road around the island,” said Maung Aye.
But locals say they have lost their lands and livelihoods without being compensated, and continue to suffer as a result of the environmental damage caused by the project.
Villagers across Burma have objected to the pipeline, which lacerates Arakan, Magwe, Mandalay and the conflict-torn northern Shan state, but April’s protest was the first large-scale demonstration. Activists have condemned the government’s “swift and severe” response to the protest as disproportionate and worrying.
Htun Kyi and his nine co-defendants are the latest in a string of peaceful activists to be sentenced and jailed under Burma’s reform-era peaceful assembly law which criminalises “unlawful” public gatherings.
The Shwe Gas pipeline, which began pumping gas in late July, is a joint venture between the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and the military-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), and is expected to earn Burma US$1.8 billion annually.