Ma Ba Tha and authorities target interfaith peace activists
(Yangon, February 17, 2016)—Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release human rights defenders Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo and drop all charges against them, Fortify Rights said today. The defendants are Mandalay-based Muslim and Hindu interfaith-peace activists.
The authorities arrested Zaw Zaw Latt, a 28-year-old Muslim man, and Pwint Phyu Latt, a 34-year-old Muslim woman, in July 2015 after the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion—commonly known by its Burmese language acronym Ma Ba Tha—and other religious nationalists waged a public campaign on social media and through a Ma Ba Tha supported journal calling for Zaw Zaw Latt’s arrest. The authorities in Mandalay subsequently arrested their colleague Zaw Win Bo, a 22-year-old Hindu man from Mandalay.
Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt face charges under articles 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act and 13(1) of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act. The charges against the two human rights defenders relate to a visit to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in June 2013 and an alleged illegal crossing of the Myanmar-India border during a humanitarian relief mission in Chin State in April 2014. Zaw Win Bo did not participate in the trip to Kachin State and faces only the immigration charge.
A judge in Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court is expected to deliver a verdict in the cases today, February 17. Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt face up to eight years in prison and a fine. Zaw Win Bo faces up to five years in prison and a fine.
“These charges are politically motivated and should be dropped immediately,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “This is yet another case of Myanmar’s law enforcement catering to the religious-nationalist movement. Instead of targeting interfaith activists, the Myanmar authorities should protect them.”
Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo work with Thint Myat Lo Thu Myar (Peace Seekers and Multiculturalist Movement), an interfaith group based in Mandalay Region. Both Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt have also previously worked with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which is currently transitioning into power following a landslide victory in November elections.
The Myanmar Police Force arrested Zaw Zaw Latt at a cafe in Mandalay on July 14, 2015 after he agreed to meet a police officer from the Criminal Investigation Department. Five days later, on July 19, Pwint Phyu Latt was arrested in Mandalay.
The charges stem from Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt’s participation in a well-publicized interfaith peace delegation to Kachin State in June 2013 organized by prominent Buddhist monk Ashin U Withuta from Yangon. The delegation traveled from Mandalay to Laiza, Kachin State—a city controlled by the KIA, an ethnic armed group engaged in armed conflict since June 2011 when the Myanmar Army attacked the KIA, breaking a 17-year ceasefire agreement—to deliver a Christian cross and a statue of the Buddha in a call for peace and interfaith harmony. The Kachin are a predominantly Christian ethnic minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Several months before Zaw Zaw Latt’s arrest, social media users took notice of photographs posted online from the peace delegation trip to Laiza, showing Zaw Zaw Latt in the company of Buddhist monks, in many cases smiling or laughing, as well as him holding a rifle. Some of these social media users began calling for his arrest. Initially, these users focused on photographs of Zaw Zaw Latt with Buddhist monks and in monasteries, claiming that the photographs insulted Buddhism.
On June 9, 2015, Ahtu Mashi, a journal of Ma Ba Tha’s Mandalay branch, published a five-page article that included several photographs of Zaw Zaw Latt with Buddhist monks, calling for him to be prosecuted for “insulting religion.” The article claimed to have examined 26 photographs taken from Zaw Zaw Latt’s Facebook profile, stating that those photographs were “impacting our Buddhist society.” The journal took issue with photographs of Zaw Zaw Latt sitting on the same level with Buddhist monks, sitting in a monk’s chair, sitting back-to-back with a monk, and joking and laughing with a “fake monk”—who was in fact prominent Mandalay monk Myawaddy Sayadaw. The article also included a photograph of Zaw Zaw Latt with Aung San Suu Kyi posted previously on social media with derogatory commentary.
The article claimed Zaw Zaw Latt was encouraging interfaith “mating” and working with “Buddhist monks who betray Buddhism.” It referenced Zaw Zaw Latt’s contact with the KIA and the photograph of Zaw Zaw Latt holding a gun, saying, “No one knows who he will be pointing the gun at.”
The article called on Myanmar authorities to “take legal action against him and punish him.”
Pwint Phyu Latt told Fortify Rights that on July 19 police officers at the No. 8 Police Station in Chan Aye Thar Zan Township asked her to be a government witness in the case against Zaw Zaw Latt, which she refused. After this, they arrested her.
“The event in Laiza was a positive, high-profile public event to promote peace and harmony,” said Matthew Smith. “It only became a problem when it stirred the ire of Ma Ba Tha and other religious-nationalists more than two years after the fact. These charges have already sent a shiver to activists and human rights defenders in Myanmar.”
The authorities added the immigration charges against Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt after the two were detained. The charges are in relation to photographs allegedly taken when a group that included Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt crossed into India allegedly without permission during a trip to Chin State in April 2014. Chin State is Myanmar’s poorest state and shares a border with India.
On July 22, 2015, the authorities arrested Zaw Win Bo at the Ward Administrative Office and issued arrest warrants for four others, including a Buddhist monk, for allegedly illegally crossing into India with Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt.
The trial against Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo began on August 7. Fortify Rights visited Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt on multiple occasions in the courtroom detention facilities before the court hearings in Mandalay. Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt expressed concern that the court would discriminate against them because of their religion, particularly with regard to sentencing.
Fortify Rights repeatedly requested to meet Deputy Chief Police Officer Soe Naing of the Mandalay Region Criminal Investigations Department (CID), who led the investigation into Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo’s activities and made the arrests. Fortify Rights received no reply.
The arrest of Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo has heightened fear among other interfaith activists and civil society in Mandalay and Yangon that they may be similarly targeted.
“There are many young people joining the [interfaith peace] movement, but Zaw Zaw Latt’s case worries them,” a Buddhist interfaith activist in Yangon told Fortify Rights. “Their parents are saying, ‘Look at what happened to Zaw Zaw Latt. You shouldn’t join in these kind of activities,’…The police never said that [they brought the case] because Ma Ba Tha was doing this or that, but the people recognize what is happening and they know why.”
The right to freedom of association is a fundamental right protected by international law. Any restriction on this right must be provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. For decades, authorities in Myanmar have applied sweeping provisions in the Unlawful Associations Act to deem peaceful associations unlawful and justify the arrest and imprisonment of human rights defenders from a variety of backgrounds. Ethnic leaders in Myanmar told Fortify Rights that the British colonial-era law has hindered the peace process in the country’s war-torn ethnic states by discouraging people from contacting ethnic armed groups and inhibiting peaceful dialogue. The vague and overly broad provisions of the Unlawful Associations Act as well as its selective enforcement against minority groups and human rights defenders constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of association.
The government of Myanmar should immediately repeal the Unlawful Associations Act, Fortify Rights said.
Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo are being arbitrarily detained. Under international law, an arrest is considered arbitrary if a person is arrested for engaging in activity that is protected under international law, such as exercising the rights to freedom of association, expression, opinion, and peaceful assembly. International law requires that “arbitrariness” be interpreted broadly to include elements such as “inappropriateness, injustice, lack of predictability and due process of law, as well as elements of reasonableness, necessity and proportionality.”
The circumstances surrounding the charges against Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo call into question the appropriateness, predictability, reasonableness, and necessity of the arrests and prosecutions as well as the due process protections afforded to the defendants.
The right to non-discrimination is also protected under international law and Myanmar’s domestic law. Article 347 of the Myanmar Constitution protects citizens from discrimination based on race and religion, stating, “the Union shall guarantee any person to enjoy equal rights before the law and shall equally provide legal protection.” Furthermore, Article 348, states, “the Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on…religion.”
Fortify Rights recommends that the incoming government of Myanmar support and protect interfaith activists in the promotion and protection of human rights.
“Interfaith harmony is essential for peace and stability in Myanmar, and that’s exactly what these defendants and their colleagues work towards,” said Matthew Smith. “There is certain danger in the quiet reach of Ma Ba Tha’s more extreme elements. The government has an opportunity with this case to stand up for the vibrant community of interfaith activists and human rights defenders by immediately releasing Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo.”