(Bangkok) – Authorities in Burma  should drop charges against ethnic Arakanese activists who participated in peaceful protests against Chinese-led oil and gas projects, Human Rights Watch said today. Ten activists are scheduled to face criminal charges in court on May 13, 2013, for demonstrating and holding a peaceful march without a permit on April 18 on Maday Island in Burma’s western Arakan State.
Over the past year, Burmese authorities have arrested and prosecuted land rights activists, anti-mining campaigners, and peace activists seeking an end to violence in Burma’s ethnic areas for failing to comply with permit-granting provisions of the 2011 Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession. These legal provisions do not conform with international human rights standards.
“Peaceful protesters should not face prison time for exercising their basic rights,” said Phil Robertson , deputy Asia director. “By jailing peaceful protesters, the Burmese government is creating a new class of political prisoners. No genuinely reformist leadership would oversee the prosecution of people who peacefully challenge the state’s development plans.”
The Maday Island protest involved several hundred Arakanese villagers who sought to publicize and demand action on their grievances against a major project to extract natural gas from the Shwe fields off the coast of Burma, a deep-sea port, and overland oil and gas pipelines from Arakan State to Yunnan Province in China. They assert that they will disproportionately bear the costs of the project, which is slated to become operational this year, for little benefit. Police arrested 10 protesters for violating section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires a permit for demonstrations.
Local sources told Human Rights Watch that the protesters twice applied for a permit and were denied each time. Authorities told the applicants that their application was denied because Maday Island is under a state of emergency. As documented in Human Rights Watch’s April report, “All You Can Do is Pray,”  the government is responsible for crimes against humanity and ongoing “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, yet Human Rights Watch found no instances of violence between Arakanese and Rohingya on Maday Island in the past year.
“Arakanese have long suffered abuses by successive Burmese governments, generating considerable mistrust,” Robertson said. “The government’s crackdown on peaceful protestors only makes matters worse.”
Those arrested for violating the peaceful assembly law are: Tun Kyi, 33, Aung Thein Tun, 44, Tun Khin Nu, 36, and Maung Phu Thee, 32, all from Ywama village; Maung Maung Sun, 32, and Maung Maung Soe, 30, from Prein village; Maung Maung Myint, 36, Maung Yin Hla, 38, and Maung Myo Naing, 32, from Kyauk Tann village; and Tin Oo Kyaw, 40, from Pann Tein Seay village.
The activists staged a protest to voice concerns about loss of land, environmental risks associated with oil and gas exploration and production, and other grievances in response to the Shwe gas project and related off-shore and on-shore components. The protest organizers released a public statement on May 2 with 12 demands to the project operators and the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), calling for the project to be postponed until their demands were met. The demands were agreed upon at consultations conducted by three community-based organizations with the residents of 17 villages in the area, accounting for an estimated 20,000 people.
Numerous villagers on Maday Island and throughout the pipeline corridor to China have reportedly lost their land due to the project and have received either inadequate or no compensation, raising concerns about their long-term livelihoods in Burma’s second poorest state. Most residents of Maday Island rely on farming and fishing for their livelihoods and have voiced concerns over potential environmental degradation associated with the industrial development projects.
Local Arakanese told Human Rights Watch that they were concerned they would bear the brunt of the gas project’s negative impacts and reap none of the benefits – since the end-users of the gas will be in Yunnan, China. “The gas is going to China,” an Arakanese elder in Sittwe told Human Rights Watch in June 2012. “Where is the electricity here? Where is the development here? This is a problem.”
The Shwe gas project and overland oil and gas pipelines have long been the subject of domestic and international protests. A consortium of Chinese, South Korean, Indian, and Burmese companies is developing the off-shore gas project and separate overland gas pipeline; the oil pipeline is a project of Chinese and Burmese companies. The pipelines traverse through four states and regions in Burma, including Shan State where armed conflict continues between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
In 2011, Human Rights Watch documented cases of forced displacement, torture, and other abuses  by the Burmese army committed in the conduct of military operations in the vicinity of the pipeline projects in northern Shan State. On May 9, 2013, fighting erupted between the Burmese army and the Shan State Army-South near Nam Kham, Shan State, causing the displacement of scores of villagers who reportedly fled towards China.
Activists around the country face criminal charges for peacefully protesting various government policies and projects. Since September 2012, the authorities have arbitrarily denied protest applications in Rangoon and Sagaing regions, violently cracked down  on anti-mining protests near Monywa, Sagaing Region, and used the peaceful assembly law to prosecute 13 activists for their participation in peaceful demonstrations  against the ongoing armed conflict between the Burmese government and the KIA.
“There’s a clear pattern of government efforts to discourage dissent against state-run development projects,” Robertson said. “Burma’s donors, despite waves of rhetoric about corporate social responsibility, should recognize that Burma’s laws are being used to undermine peaceful social protests against projects that have major impacts on people’s livelihoods and land.”