Three interfaith youth activists in Mandalay have been hit with two-year prison terms with hard labour for charges that rights groups have criticised as politically motivated.
The volunteers promoting religious tolerance were arrested last July in connection to visiting a blacklisted ethnic armed group, as well as alleged immigration violations.
After postponing a hearing earlier this month due to a last-minute judge swap, the Chan Aye Tharzan court found the activists guilty and cited photos posted to social media as evidence in the February 26 verdict.
Ko Zaw Zaw Latt, 28, Ma Pwint Phyu Latt, 34, and Ko Zaw Win Bo, 22, were convicted of violating section 13(1) of the 1947 Immigration Emergency Provisions Act for entering the country illegally.
The section carries a minimum six-month term and maximum of five years.
“It is totally unfair. This law was enacted only for foreigners. Yet even Chinese nationals [arrested for illegal logging and immigration violations] were sentenced to six months in prison but were released after eight days. It shows the whole judiciary is ruined,” said Ko Zaw Zaw Latt.
The Muslim and Hindu activists are part of interfaith group Thint Myat Lo Thu Myar (Peace Seekers) – founded by a Buddhist monk following the outbreak of communal violence in Meiktila in 2013. The immigration charges stemmed from a group trip to Chin State where a photo allegedly showed the activists across the border in India.
Last September, a sayadaw testified for the defence about the interfaith work that was conducted during group trips. The Burma Muslim Association accused nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha of instigating the charges and targeting the activists due to their work promoting religious tolerance.
Ko Zaw Zaw Latt is also being charged with unlawful association after a 2013 trip to Laiza, Kachin State, where the interfaith group met members of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Photos posted to Facebook showed Ko Zaw Zaw Latt posing with alleged members of the KIO while holding a rifle.
There were also photos of Ko Zaw Zaw Latt meeting with Buddhist monks, and some social media users suggested he should be arrested for insulting religion.
Police Captain Myo Min Hlaing from the Chan Aye Tharzan township police filed the complaint against Ko Zaw Zaw Latt, Ma Pwint Phyu Latt and Ko Zaw Win Bo as well as five other members of the interfaith group under article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act and article 13(1) of the Immigration Emergency Provisions Act.
One other defendant has since been arrested and a warrant has been issued for the remaining four activists.
Thailand-based NGO Fortify Rights, which has followed the case closely, called the trial against the activists a sham. It said the charges were politically motivated and should be dropped.
Chan Aye Tharzan Township Court will hear the unlawful association case on March 9.
Translation by Zar Zar Soe