University students sentenced to hard labor for peaceful protest

(YANGON, February 15, 2019) – The Government of Myanmar should immediately and unconditionally free seven university students sentenced to three months in prison with hard labor for peacefully protesting security conditions on their university campus in Mandalay, said Athan and Fortify Rights today.

“These convictions are absurd,” said Maung Saungkha, Founder of Athan. “This is yet another example of the Myanmar government jailing students and activists for exercising their right to peacefully assemble. Instead of locking up students for holding a protest, the government should listen to their calls for better security.”

On February 13, the Amarapura Township Court found seven students of Yadanabon University guilty of arson and holding a protest without providing proper notification, sentencing the students to a total of three months’ in prison with hard labor.
The seven students are prominent members of the Yadanabon Student Union and were involved in organizing a series of protests beginning on December 28 on Yadanabon University campus, calling for improved campus security.

A member of the Yadanabon Student Union speaks to a crowd during protests on Yadanabon University campus, December 28, 2018. ©Voice of Myanmar
A member of the Yadanabon Student Union speaks to a crowd during protests on Yadanabon University campus, December 28, 2018. ©Voice of Myanmar

The security conditions on the campus of Yadanabon University and in surrounding areas in Mandalay are troubling, said Athan and Fortify Rights. In the fall of 2018, three students—Ko Nay Min Htet, age 19, Htet Lin Thant, age 18, and So Moe Hein, age 20—were robbed and murdered in Mandalay, while up to 15 motorcycles of students are stolen each year, according to the protesters. Yadanabon University employs around 30 security officers to provide security for approximately 25,000 students.

After raising concerns with local officials—including University Rector Maung Maung Naing, Mandalay Regional Chief Minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, and other relevant authorities—and failing to receive an adequate response, the Yadanabon Student Union organized protests. In addition to demanding better security for students, they called for toilets to be fixed and more maintenance personnel.

During the protest on December 28, dozens of students burned a mock coffin containing photos of the University Rector Maung Maung Naing, the Chief Minister of Mandalay Region Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, the Regional Minister for Electricity, Road and Transportation Zarni Aung, and the Minister for Security and Border Affairs Major Kyaw Kyaw Min. Immediately following the protest, the Amarapura Township police arrested three organizers of the protest— Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw, Ye Min Htun, and Ye Myo Swe. The authorities initially detained the student leaders overnight at the Amarapura Township police station. The following day, the Amarapura Township Court issued a remand to send the student leaders to Mandalay Obo Prison without bail.

Amarapura Township police made further arrests following additional protests on January 2. The authorities arrested student leaders and protest organizers Ba Chit (aka) Myo Chit Zaw, Phone Myint Kyaw, Ye Linn Aung, and Nay Win Kyaw in front of the university gate, initially detaining them at the Amarapura Township police station and later transferring them to Mandalay Obo Prison. The police also issued a warrant to arrest Naing Ye Wai, who is now in hiding, and temporarily closed down the Yadanabon Student Union office for several days following the January 2 protest.

Initially, the chief of police charged the students with criminal defamation, deterring a public servant from discharging their duty, arson, and abetting a crime—violations under sections 505(b), 353, 435, and 114 of the Myanmar Criminal Code, respectively—in addition to holding a protest without notifying township authorities in violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. However, Mandalay Regional Chief Minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung agreed to drop the charges under sections 505(b) and 353 following negotiations with representatives from the Yadanabon Student Union on January 24.

Arbitrarily detained students of Yadanabon University arrive at Amarapura Township Court, February 13, 2019. ©Yadanabon University Student Union
Arbitrarily detained students of Yadanabon University arrive at Amarapura Township Court, February 13, 2019. ©Yadanabon University Student Union 

Under international law, arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are engaging in a protected activity, such as exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Moreover, the requirement under Myanmar’s peaceful assembly law that protest organizers obtain prior authorization for protests—rather than merely requiring that organizers notify authorities—is incompatible with international law and standards.
International law permits state authorities to restrict peaceful assembly or freedom of expression only if such restriction is considered “necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security or public safety, public order (ordre publique), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The students’ protest in Mandalay was peaceful, lawful, and protected under international human rights law, said Athan and Fortify Rights.

“The students did the right thing and were acting responsibly by protesting for more security,” said Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights. “With these convictions, Myanmar authorities are sending a message to other would-be peaceful protesters and university students, and it’s the wrong message. The students should be unconditionally freed without delay.”

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