By: Daniel McElroy
Four student activists were sentenced this week to four months in prison after an April protest they staged outside the Department of Higher Education office in Mandalay, Myanmar. Kaung Zaw Hein, Zaw Ye Htut, Hnin Aung and Ye Myo Swe—all active student union members on their university campuses—were opposing what they call “military-style oppression” and tactics to limit free expression and organizing on campuses that include mobile phone bans and strict timetables akin to those in the army.
The students received three-month sentences under Myanmar’s controversial Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires pre-authorization from the government before demonstrations can occur and also attempts to dictate what forms of expression are allowed during a protest by forbidding any messages that might “harm the dignity of a person.”
Additionally, after the students’ request to have their handcuffs removed during the trial was denied, they chose to turn their backs to the judge and sing protest songs throughout the rest of the hearing. They were promptly removed from the courtroom, found guilty of disrespecting the court, and given the choice between an extra month of jail time or a 20,000 kyat ($15 USD) fine. All chose the extra month in prison.
Myanmar’s record on human rights issues is extremely poor, as a military junta ruled the nation throughout the late 20th century, overseeing potent ethnic strife and a prolonged civil war. A new constitution was put in place in 2008 by referendum, and a supposedly civilian government has been in power since 2011, but repression of dissenting political opinions remains rampant.
The families of the convicted activists announced promptly that they would not seek to appeal the court’s decision so as to not legitimize a law that they believe places unjust restrictions on freedom of expression. However, students around Burma have not been so willing to remain silent about their outrage regarding the verdict.
Within days of the sentencing, the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions held a march through the streets of Mandalay all the way to City Hall, demanding the release of the four student activists as well as other political prisoners. Demonstrators concerned about their nation’s international reputation held signs reading “No Violence Against Students” and “Respect Student Freedom,” and organizers have made clear that they plan to continue holding protests until their demands are met and the convicted student activists are freed from prison.