Myanmar authorities should immediately drop charges against Karen environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe, said ARTICLE 19. Police attempted to arrest Saw Tha Phoe, who remains at large, in what many believe to be retaliation for his efforts to raise awareness of the environmental impact of a cement factory.
“Diligently and peacefully advocating for clean air and water is a public service, not a crime. The charges against Saw Tha Phoe are absurd,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Rather than harassing environmental activists, the government should be listening to their concerns.”
On 17 January 2020, Saw Tha Phoe, monks, and local villagers participated in a traditional Karen prayer ceremony in Myaingkalay District, Kayin State, focused on pollution from the Myaingkalay cement factory. The cement factory is operated by the Myanmar Economic Corporation, one of two principal military-owned conglomerates. Local residents have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of the factory in recent years, including air and water pollution. The factory has also been linked to land confiscation and the destruction of cultural sites.
The authorities reportedly attempted to arrest Saw Tha Phoe at his home in Karen State on 7 March 2020 in relation to charges filed by the General Administration Department under section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code. Saw Tha Phoe was not at home at the time.
Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code criminalizes making or circulating a statement “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity.” It carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. In recent years, the section has been invoked against a former child soldier speaking out about his experiences and journalists reporting on alleged corruption in the Yangon Regional government.
On 10 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar raised concerns about Saw Tha Phoe’s case while speaking at the Human Rights Council.
Those calling for greater protection of the environment in Myanmar have at times been targeted with violence. Karen environmental activist Naw Chit Pandaing was murdered in 2016. Authorities have failed to properly investigate the case or bring charges against the perpetrators. At times, authorities have resorted to the use of force against those protesting environmental degradation. During a 2017 protest decrying the environmental impact of the Letpaudang Copper Mine, police fired rubber bullets into the crowd, injuring several protesters. In 2019, authorities again used rubber bullets against an assembly, firing into a crowd protesting a coal-powered cement factory in Mandalay Division’s Patheingyi Township and injuring more than a dozen people.
“The harassment of Saw Tha Phoe is yet another reminder of the many flaws of Myanmar’s Penal Code,” said Matthew Bugher. “The government should work to immediately reform the Penal Code and other repressive legislation in line with international standards and stop the targeted application of the law against environmental activists and others criticizing the military or its economic interests.”