As armed conflict continues unabated in northern and western Myanmar, the far reaching impact plays out not just on the battlefield, but in the courtrooms and prisons of Myanmar. Two ethnic Kachin youth, Paw Lu and Seng Nu Pan, have been sentenced to 15 days in prison for holding a peaceful demonstration marking eight years since the resumption of war in Kachin State, while the release of former child soldier, Aung Ko Htwe, who was jailed for simply talking about his experiences, remind us of the dangers of even speaking out against the destruction and violence that is being inflicted upon ethnic communities.
Since the escalation of fighting between the Myanmar military and three members of the Northern Alliance – composed of ethnic armed organizations – in mid August 2019, heavy fighting has spread across northern Shan State, and civilians have borne the brunt, with at least 17 people dead. For example in Kutkai Township, heavy fighting resulted in the death of five ethnic Kachin civilians, including a young boy and a baby girl when a mortar shell hit the house they were in. A statement signed by 364 civil society organizations demands, “that all parties implement a complete and immediate cessation of any military action and hostilities; fully respect civilian protection and abide to international humanitarian law and human rights law.” In Rakhine State, the Myanmar military is continuing in its efforts to rout the Arakan Army. As in Shan State, local civilians are facing the consequences, as reports that the Myanmar military burned down the villages of Oo Yin Thar and San Goe Taung in Buthidaung Township, northern Rakhine State. The villagers had already fled and were living in a displacement site with around 60,000 people becoming displaced in Rakhine State since the end of 2018.
For those that speak out against such violence, they must risk arrest and a journey through the broken criminal justice system of Myanmar at the very least. This is demonstrated by the case of two ethnic Kachin youth, Paw Lu and Seng Nu Pan, who staged a peaceful performance on 9 June, 2019, to mark eight years since the conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military resumed. They were sentenced by a Myitkyina court to either 15 days in prison or a 30,000 Myanmar Kyat fine for holding an unauthorized protest under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. They opted for the fine with Seng Nu Pan explaining, “We are expressing our rights through not paying this fine to show the failure of the law, the puppeteering and influence behind our trial.” Furthermore, in an act rich in symbolism, Paw Lu handed the judge a broken scale. As if this was his cue for his part of the drama, the judge responded by filing a lawsuit against Paw Lu for which he has received an additional three months imprisonment for disrespecting the court. Paw Lu explained, “I gave him broken scales to represent the collapse of the judiciary in this country. The scales of justice in this country are broken. For that, I’ve been sentenced to three months imprisonment. This shows Kachin State, the country and the world that there is no justice.”
The tragic case of Aung Ko Htwe is another example of how armed conflict and a corrupt, politically pliant court system combine to have destructive effects on people’s lives. Aung Ko Htwe was abducted and forcibly conscripted into the Myanmar military when he was just 14 years old in 2005. After two years he escaped with others but he was caught and charged with the murder of the owner of a motorcycle who died while the fleeing soldiers made their getaway. After ten years in prison he was finally released. Yet his tragic story did not end, and after speaking about his experiences to the media outlet, Radio Free Asia, he was charged with incitement by the Myanmar military and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was finally released on 6 September, 2019.
The nexus of armed conflict and a judiciary and court system that is beholden to the Myanmar military is a destructive force in Myanmar. Not only can the Myanmar military commit the gravest human rights violations with impunity against ethnic people, those who dare to challenge the legality or speak out, such as Paw Lu and Seng Nu Pan, are punished. The mantra of ‘rule of law’ espoused by Aung San Suu Syi and enthusiastically supported by international donors cannot be established in a political vacuum. It must go hand-in-hand with political and constitutional reform that addresses ethnic grievances and subordinates the military under civilian rule. The scales of justice in Myanmar are indeed broken, and unless people are free to speak out against the crimes of the Myanmar military, and justice and accountability is found for the victims and survivors, people such as the villagers of Oo Yin Thar, child soldiers such as Aung Ko Htwe, or youth activists such as Paw Lu and Seng Nu Pan, will continue to suffer.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By 16 Organizations
By 346 Civil Society Organizations
By Article 19
By Amnesty International
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
By United Nations Information Centre
By Shan Human Rights Foundation
By Tanintharyi Friends
By Transnational Institute (TNI)
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”