A key charge against Bauk Ja, a well-known ethnic Kachin land rights activist turned politician, was withdrawn last week by prosecutors in Kachin State’s Hpakant district, her lawyer tells The Irrawaddy.
Bauk Ja (also spelled Bauk Gyar, Bawk Ja and Bawk Jar) was arrested in July of last year for charges relating to the death of a sick person she had attempted to assist several years ago. Prosecutors alleged that the patient had died because of Bauk Ja’s actions. The charges, which fell under Section 304(a) of the Penal Code covering “causing death by negligence,” were dropped at the request of the deceased person’s family, the activist’s lawyer told The Irrawaddy. “A family member directly applied to the court to withdraw the case. We don’t know why,” lawyer Law Tong said on Thursday.
Bauk Ja still faces two lesser charges under the Medical Council Act relating to the improper use of needles and medicine, for which she had a court hearing on Monday of this week. She is set to have more hearings for these charges later this month. According to her lawyer, who recently met Bauk Ja, the activist is in good health at the Hpakant police station where she remains in detention.
Bauk Ja had originally been charged in relation to the case shortly after the death occurred, but these charges were dropped and then reintroduced last year. The peculiarities of Bauk Ja’s case have given rise to suspicion among many Kachin that the case was a thinly veiled attempt to keep the internationally renowned activist out of the spotlight. Until her arrest, Bauk Ja was the Kachin State chairwoman for the National Democratic Force, a party created by a breakaway faction of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Kachin National Organization (KNO), a prominent Kachin exile association, told The Irrawaddy that the case was the product of a corrupt legal system. “The legal system in Kachin State and Burma overall is controlled by the military,” said Hkanhpa Sadan.
Sadan, who is UK-based, believes that Bauk Ja was charged due to her outspoken criticism of land seizures in the Hukaung Valley and her denunciation of cronies of the former military regime who she claimed took part in the land-grabbing. “A crony culture is deeply embedded in Burma,” Sadan explained.
Sadan said he was also concerned that a conviction resulting from the other charges Bauk Ja faces, which he described as baseless, would effectively bar her from further political activities when she is eventually released. According to Sadan, millions in Burma regularly violate the outdated and rarely enforced health laws by using medicine from Thailand and China that is not imported through official channels. “The health system in Burma has failed completely, so all in Burma are guilty of improper use of medicine,” claimed Sadan.
Bauk Ja’s continued detention has drawn widespread concern internationally. A motion calling for her immediate release was introduced in Britain’s Parliament last September by Labour Party MP Valerie Vaz.
A Rise to National Prominence
Bauk Ja became a national figure some five years ago following her involvement in helping to organize a legal action brought by 150 farming families against the Yuzana corporation and its chairman Htay Myint (currently an MP from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party) for confiscating farmland in western Kachin State’s fertile Hukaung Valley. Although Yuzana was able defeat the suit, it shed light on large-scale land-grabbing that had been going on in the Hukaung.
During the November 2010 election, Bauk Ja ran as a candidate for the NDF in the jade-rich Hpakant district. She lost to a candidate from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) after election authorities controversially declared 13,255 votes invalid.
Although Bauk Ja initially contested the final vote tally, which gave USDP candidate Ohn Myint 29,426 votes over her total of 21,633, Bauk Ja later dropped the challenge when Ohn Myint vacated his seat to take a Union-level cabinet position. Ohn Myint and Bauk Ja had been at odds before. When Ohn Myint served as northern regional commander, he approved Yuzana’s land seizures in the Hukaung Valley, despite the fact that the land was in an area that the Burmese government had officially declared the world’s largest tiger reserve.
Bauk Ja’s vocal criticism of Yuzana and the disputed 2010 election count in her district brought the ire of Burmese authorities. In January 2011, an arrest warrant was issued against Bauk Ja by Ohn Myint’s successor as northern regional commander, Brig-Gen Zeyar Aung. The arrest warrant forced Bauk Ja to go underground temporarily until it was withdrawn.
Until she was detained last year, Bauk Ja had been an outspoken critic of the Hukaung Valley tiger reserve, which was created in 2001 with the assistance of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American environmental NGO. Bauk Ja and other critics have contended that the reserve has failed to protect any actual wildlife because Burmese authorities and the reserve’s American backers are afraid to challenge Yuzana’s land-grabbing for plantations.
During an interview with this correspondent in November 2012, Bauk Ja said she had observed a sharp decline in the Hukaung’s environment since the tiger reserve was created. The deterioration was a direct result of Yuzana’s land-grabbing, logging and other crony-related gold mining projects operated with the approval of government authorities, she said. Her bleak assessment about the lack of tigers in the reserve was made after numerous local animal trackers told her they hadn’t seen tiger paw prints or other signs of big cat life in the valley for several years. “The hunters have told me there are no more tigers left,” she told The Irrawaddy.