15 anti-war protesters arrested, some sentenced to five years in prison, many in hiding
(YANGON, October 19, 2020)—Myanmar authorities should immediately end an ongoing crackdown against peaceful anti-war
protesters, said Fortify Rights today. Since September 11, Myanmar authorities arbitrarily detained 15 human rights
defenders, including 14 members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), for protesting the government and
the ongoing war in Rakhine and Chin states. Between October 2 to 9, courts in Mandalay Region sentenced two ABFSU
members to five years in prison, one to one year in prison, and another to one month with hard labor, all for their
involvement in legitimate, peaceful activities.
On October 20 and 21, courts in Mandalay Region are scheduled to consider additional charges against Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw,
24, and Soe Hla Naing, 23—the two aforementioned ABFSU members already sentenced to five-year prison terms. At least
nine of the other detained protesters are scheduled to appear before the Chan Aye Thar-Zan Township Court in Mandalay on
“There is a coordinated crackdown against peaceful protesters unfolding right now,” said Ismail Wolff, Fortify Rights Regional Director. “The crackdown is aimed at incapacitating and silencing human rights defenders and student activists. The charges
should be dropped, and the Myanmar Government should free all political prisoners immediately.”
The four convicted ABFSU members and at least four of the other detained protesters are currently imprisoned in Obo
Prison in Mandalay Region. According to ABFSU—a nationwide student organization with a long history of political
activism—at least 16 of its members are currently in hiding.
The arrests appear to be in response to an anti-war leafletting and poster campaign launched by ABFSU in Mandalay in
early September. For example, on September 11, the day after protesters distributed anti-war material in the Zay Cho
Market, Yadanabon University, around the Mandalay moat, and elsewhere in Mandalay, Chan Aye Thar-Zan Township police in
Mandalay briefly detained and charged ABFSU member Myo Chit Zaw, 21, and filed charges against 12 others for failing to
notify the authorities in advance of the September 10 protest. Two days later, on September 13, police briefly detained
and charged ABFSU Central Executive Committee members Soe Hla Naing and Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw on the same charges.Two students from ABFSU post anti-war posters on September 15 at the corner of 73rd and 37th Street in Mandalay. ©Kaung
Zaw Hein, 2020
Despite the arrests, between September 11 and October 9, ABFSU members continued to conduct more than 12 leafletting and
poster campaign activities in townships throughout Mandalay and in other regions. ABFSU members distributed material
with slogans saying, "Oppose murderous fascism" and "Dictatorships must fail" and calling for the government to lift mobile internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states
, where the Myanmar Army and Arakan Army are engaged in an ongoing armed conflict.
The leafletting and poster campaign activities that ABFSU members conducted in addition to the September 10 campaign
included: September 11 in Nattalin and Paungde townships in Magway Region; September 14 in Pyawbwe Township in Mandalay
Region; September 16 in Mandalay City; September 18 and 20 in Monywa and Tanse townships in Sagaing Region,
respectively; September 19 in Taungoo Township in Bago Region; September 25 in Mandalay; October 3 in Mandalay and
Chaung Sone Township in Mon State; October 5 in Pa-an Township in Karen State; and on October 6 and 9 in Shwebo and
Monywa townships in Sagaing Region, respectively.
In an apparent response to ABFSU's campaign, police filed more serious charges against the ABFSU members and conducted a
series of raids on homes and university campuses, arresting 15 students over the course of two weeks, including:Than Toe Aung and Sann Linn Ko in Meikhtila in Mandalay Region on September 15;Linn Thura Ko in Kalay town in Sagaing Region on September 17;Aung Thuu Hein in Meikhtila on September 23; andYell Yint Aung, Soe Hla Naing, and Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw in Mandalay on September 25.
The authorities also arrested three ABFSU members—Aung Khaing Min, Thet Maung Maung, and Hla Htun Aung—during a raid on
ABFSU headquarters at Pakokku University in Magway Region on September 27. That same day, the authorities arrested Nyi
Nyi Min Htet Wai in Monywa, Sagaing Region. Most recently, on September 29, police arrested Htet Aung and Kyaw Ye Thu in
Paungde Township in Bago Region.
Most of the detained protesters face multiple charges—in some cases, in multiple jurisdictions—including for alleged
violations under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (Peaceful Assembly Law), the Myanmar Criminal Code,
and the Natural Disaster Management Law. Many face several years in prison.
Section 505(a) of the Myanmar Criminal Code prohibits anyone who "makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor,
or report" with the intent or likelihood to cause a member of the military "to mutiny or otherwise disregard his duty."
Section 505(b) similarly prohibits expressions intended or likely to cause "fear or alarm" among the public or induce
others to "commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility." Punishment under these sections
includes up to two-years' imprisonment and/or a fine.
The Peaceful Assembly Law provides a maximum penalty of up to three months in prison and/or a fine of up to 30,000
Myanmar Kyat (about US$23) for failing to give advanced notice to the authorities when organizing an assembly. Section
25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law provides a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment and/or a fine for
willful or negligent actions leading to natural disasters and has recently been applied to those failing to adhere to
COVID-19 restriction measures.ABFSU Yandabon University chapter member Myo Chit Zaw, dressed in blue, appears before the Chan Aye Thar-zan Township
Court on October 9 to face charges under section 505(b) of the Myanmar Criminal Code. ©Kaung Zaw Hein, 2020
Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw and Myo Chit Zaw, whom the courts recently sentenced to imprisonment in Obo Prison, were among a
group of students arrested in December 2018 for their involvement in peaceful protests calling for increased security
measures and other improvements at Yadanabon University in Mandalay. Both previously spent more than 80 days in Obo
Prison, where they reported being tortured by guards.
Fortify Rights and Athan documented the arrest, detention, and torture of student activists in Mandalay in the April
2020 joint report, "Our Demands are for All Students": Violations of Students' Rights in Mandalay, Myanmar.
In that report, Myo Chit Zaw described the beatings he experienced in Obo Prison: "[A] guard pulled my arms from the
back so I couldn't move while another guard hit my face and kicked my chest. Two guards were pulling me from the back
while two others were kicking, beating me. The guards also beat my back with a truncheon."
Despite reporting the 2018 beatings and abusive treatment to the prison and relevant government authorities, the
students received no response or remedies.
“Myanmar's record of torture and ill-treatment in detention is cause for serious concern amidst a crackdown like this,” said Ismail Wolff. “The international community must speak with one voice and demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and
assurances of their safety.”
On October 14, amidst this crackdown, the European Union and the Government of Myanmar held their sixth Human Rights Dialogue
International human rights law and Myanmar's domestic law protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful
assembly. Article 19 and Article 20(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Myanmar is a signatory,
protects the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association,
respectively. These rights are also recognized as fundamental rights that states are bound to uphold under customary
international law. Under Myanmar's domestic law, Article 354(b) of the Myanmar Constitution provides for the right "to
express and publish freely their convictions and opinions" and "to assemble peacefully without arms and holding
Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are
permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. However, as noted by
former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai, "freedom is
to be considered the rule and its restriction the exception."
Moreover, the requirement under Myanmar's peaceful assembly law that protest organizers notify authorities in advance or
face criminal charges is incompatible with international law. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has held that imposing
criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for holding a peaceful assembly is incompatible with human rights
"The Myanmar parliament should amend the peaceful assembly law without delay," said Ismail Wolff. "The relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Myanmar is extreme and worsening. All
arbitrarily detained activists and political prisoners must be released."