RANGOON — Police in Pegu Division have charged five activists for demonstrating without permission against a plan to change Burma’s electoral system, despite an amendment recently signed off by President Thein Sein to soften the law restricting the right to protest.
Nearly 100 protesters marched around the town of Prome on Monday to show their opposition to a change from the first-past-the-post system to proportional representation (PR) ahead of the vital parliamentary elections expected in late 2015. The change is backed by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, but opposed by the main opposition National League for Democracy and ethnic minority parties, and is currently under discussion by a parliamentary commission.
Kyaw Swe, one of the leaders of Monday’s protest from activist group Supporting Network for People, said that the organizers requested permission for the protest four days before the date.
“The authorities said we need to ask for permission five days ahead,” he said.
The protest went ahead without official approval, and the five people who signed the application to demonstrate were on Tuesday charged by the No.(2) Police Station in Prome with Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which outlaws any public gatherings without permission.
Robert San Aung, the activists’ advocate, said the charges were against the law since President Thein Sein signed into force amendments to the Peaceful Assemble Law on July 24, including a measure that obliges authorities to approve demonstrations as long as the organizers apply in advance.
“The authorities can’t refuse permission anymore. My clients are not guilty since they asked for permission in accordance with the law,” he said.
Kyaw San, from the Prome District branch of the Former Political Prisoners Association and one of the five activists, said that, in a different case, authorities had granted approval for a protest against the jailing of journalists at the Unity journal, even though permission was sought only two days ahead of the protest.
“But they refused us, saying we need to ask for permission at least five days ahead of the protest. It is not appropriate,” he said.
“I believe we acted fairly, right and did not violate the law. So we decided that if the court sentences us to fines or imprisonment, we will choose prison sentences.”
In Rangoon, more than 100 people also protested against the PR proposal on Tuesday. The protest leaders said that the authorities also refused them to give the permission for protest, but they have not been charged.