Four people are facing charges under Burma’s controversial protest law after holding public talks about environmental conservation in Irrawaddy Division’s Dedaye Township, according to the accused.
“We went to different villages and explained to locals that environmental conservation is important and so are mangrove forests for people living by the sea, but we were charged with Article 18 by the Kyonedar police station, which said it was at the directive of the township administrator and police chief,” Htun Htun Oo, a member of the Human Rights Watch and Defense Network (HRWDN) and a defendant, told The Irrawaddy.
Article 18 of Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law, which was enacted in December 2011, states that activists need government permission to hold a protest. Organizing a protest without permission can result in a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of 30,000 kyats [US$30] or both. Parliament’s Lower House on March 5 passed amendments to the law that would see punishments reduced and the requirement for pre-protest permission dropped, but the proposed changes have yet to be taken up by the Upper House.
Htun Htun Oo said he and three other locals—Cho Lwin, Myint Lwin and Khin Shwe—facing the Article 18 charges for environmental campaigning undertaken on March 10-11.
Cho Lwin, another defendant, told The Irrawaddy that he and his friends were simply accompanying the HRWDN activist and did not engage in any outright campaigning themselves.
“We only followed Htun Htun Oo and introduced him to local villagers, and didn’t talk about the environment at all, but were still charged under Article 18,” he said.
The Irrawaddy contacted Pol-Lt Naing Mon Htun, the head of the Kyonedar police station, for details of the charges but the officer declined to comment on the case.
Htun Htun Oo said southern Dedaye Township, which sits adjacent to the sea, was suffering from soil erosion due to environmental degradation that had so far resulted in the loss of about 1,000 acres of land that used to be mangrove forests.
“During the British colonial era in Burma, over 2,000 acres of land in this area was considered mangrove forest and made for a defense against natural disasters,” said the HRWDN activist. “But local authorities put them up for sale, so rich farmers bought them and transformed them into farmlands.”
Htun Htun Oo said his environmental campaigning also included public talks about the need to regrow mangrove forests as soon as possible for the security of local people.
The greater Dedaye area is home to more than 40,000 people and is comprised of 46 villages among the five village tracts of Kyonedat, Mayan, Leikkyun, Hsukalap and Shankan.
Aung Kyi Nyunt, a local from the village of Nyaungleinkon in Kyonedat, told The Irrawaddy that due to depletion of the area’s mangrove forests, dozens of people died and damage was more severe when Cyclone Nargis struck the area in 2008.
“When Nargis hit, seawater waves, without any obstacles on their way, came to us speedily, so 53 people were killed in our village alone,” he said. “Out of 160 houses, 143 were washed away and nothing left. Thus, for our lives’ security of our posterity, I want to reinstall those mangrove forests.”
On Feb. 22, more than 150 people from the Kyonedat village tract took to the streets of Dedaye to call for the replanting of mangrove forests in the area.