BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A Myanmar court on Thursday sentenced 10 activists to three months in jail for protesting without a permit against a controversial Chinese-led oil and gas project in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, their defence lawyer said, in a case rights groups say is a sign of a new wave of authoritarianism creeping into Myanmar.
The activists were found guilty under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires police permission to march or hold a procession – a clause criticised by rights groups as undemocratic.
Rights groups also say the case is one of many where the law on public assembly is being systematically used to silence critics in Myanmar, a country that has been praised for its democratic reforms after emerging from half a century of military rule.
"It's very unfair," the activists’ defence lawyer Htein Lin told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I’m going to appeal against this judgement on Monday."
Tun Kyi, one of the jailed activists, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in August their numerous applications for permission for the protest on April 18 were rejected.
The police cited security concerns and an emergency decree imposed after communal violence in Rakhine State last year displaced some 140,000 people, most of them stateless Muslim Rohingya.
Tun Kyi said there had been no communal clashes on Maday, the westernmost project site where the peaceful protest took place and no announcement had been made there about an emergency decree.
The activists were demanding action over grievances against the Shwe Gas project, which includes a deep-sea port, natural gas from Myanmar’s offshore reserves and overland oil and gas pipelines from Rakhine to China.
Locals and activists say the project has led to conflict, human rights abuses and environmental degradation. They say local people have lost their jobs and had farmland seized to make way for the project and have been compensated arbitrarily and without consultation.
Thailand-based activist group Shwe Gas Movement said the project would provide Myanmar – one of the world’s poorest countries with its own crippling energy shortage – with revenues of around $29 billion over the next 30 years.
(Writing by Thin Lei Win)