YANGON (Reuters) – A Myanmar court jailed three activists on Friday for defaming the military during anti-war protests, amid growing concern about a clamp-down on civil society.
A judge in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, found two men and one woman guilty of defamation, sentencing them to six months in prison and a fine of $320 each.
Lum Zawng, Nang Pu, and Zau Jat took part in demonstrations in war-torn Kachin in April, when an army offensive against ethnic minority guerrillas prompted more than 6,000 people to flee their homes.
“They used the word ‘military’ in their speech,” said Doi Bu, a lawyer for one of the defendants, referring to speeches they made at the protest.
“‘The military doesn’t allow people to leave the conflict zone’,” she said, giving examples of what they had said.
“‘The military blocks people from the conflict zone’, and ‘the military is threatening people’.”
The three had denied wrongdoing.
The fighting between government troops and one of the country’s biggest insurgent groups, the Kachin Independence Army, stranded hundreds of villagers in the conflict zone and sparked anti-war protests in Myitkyina.
After more than two weeks, government leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent her minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, Win Myat Aye, to the area and in May some 150 trapped villagers were allowed passage to safety.
The European Union and Swedish embassies in Yangon condemned Friday’s verdict, urging the authorities to review the decision.
The EU said the judgment was “worrying news for civil society in Myanmar”.
“Protests for peace and for saving people trapped by violent conflict should not be criminalized,” the EU said in a statement.
The international rights group Amnesty International said the jailing of the three was “appalling”.
Their sentences reflected a pattern of attacks, intimidation, threats and prosecutions against human rights defenders, journalists and community leaders who speak out in defense of civilian victims of military operations, it said.
“It sends a chilling warning,” the group said in a statement.
The government denies any pattern of rights abuses saying cases are handled according to the law.
According to the Myanmar free-speech organization Athan, which means ‘Voice’ in Burmese, 44 journalists and 142 activists have faced trial since 2016, when Nobel laureate Suu Kyi came to power at the head of a civilian government after 50 years of military rule.
Activists say her government has failed to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap colonial-era laws used to stifle dissent, while tightening restrictions on activist groups.
(This corrects gender of lawyer in paragraph 5.)
Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Poppy McPherson, Robert Birsel