People displaced in the conflict between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army are seen at a church in Tanai Township, Kachin State, June 14, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should quash the convictions of three ethnic Kachin activists found guilty of defaming the military, Human Rights Watch said today. Zau Jat, Lum Zawng, and Nang Pu were each sentenced to six months in prison and a 500,000 kyat (US$320) fine on December 7, 2018, for raising the plight of civilians trapped by fighting between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, and a Kachin armed group.

“The Tatmadaw is once again using criminal defamation laws to punish those who criticize its actions,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “By filing charges against activists who simply urged help for civilians trapped by fighting, Myanmar’s military shows its unwillingness to curtail serious abuses.”

On April 30 and May 1, after fighting in Kachin State between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army trapped thousands of displaced civilians in areas without access to humanitarian aid, more than 3,000 ethnic Kachin staged a peaceful protest in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to call for their rescue.

Lum Zawng, a Kachin lawyer, Nang Pu, a founding member of the Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, and Zau Jat, of the Kachin National Social Development Foundation, three of the organizers of the protest, made speeches during the two days. They accused the military of causing displacement and called for the evacuation of civilians trapped by the fighting and an end to airstrikes on civilian areas. On May 8, Lt. Col. Myo Min Oo of the Army’s Northern Regional Command filed criminal defamation complaints against all three under section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code.

It is increasingly recognized globally that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment. Defamation cases involving government officials or public figures are particularly problematic. The use of criminal defamation laws against activists for participating in a peaceful assembly raising issues of public concern is an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of speech.

“The prosecution of these three activists strikes at the heart of free speech by restricting the ability of citizens to criticize those ruling the country,” Robertson said. “Myanmar’s government should tell the Tatmadaw that this lawsuit is unacceptable and immediately move to quash the convictions and release all three activists from prison.”