A court in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady region on Monday sentenced two Rakhine publishers and two other men to two years in prison each for publishing a Rakhine calendar with terminology used by a rebel army, the wife of one of the jailed men and their attorney said.
Regional police arrested Thein Aung Myat, publisher of the Rakhine Rakhita calendar, his aide Kaung Myat Thu, a man who acted as their guide, and their taxi driver on April 6 as they sold the calendars in Haigyi Island in Ngapudaw township. Authorities also confiscated the car they were traveling in.
The four men were charged under Section 17(1) of the country's colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act because the calendars allegedly had terminologies used by an insurgent group. The law carries a prison sentence for those who interact with an illegal group such as an armed ethnic organization.
Moe Thanda Khin, wife of Thein Aung Myat, said the men were arrested because the calendar included the words "Arakan Army Day."
The Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, is fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy in western Myanmar's Rakhine state. At least 90 civilians have died and tens of thousands of others have been displaced since hostilities escalated in late 2018.
During the trial, the plaintiff presented a video, photos, and contents from Thein Aung Myat's Facebook timeline as evidence.
"This is not a new calendar," Moe Thanda Khin told RFA's Myanmar Service. "This calendar has been published for 10 years. Arakan Army Day exists in the history of Arakan. We have references to it in historical records."
But because the calendars included the date of the establishment of the Arakan Army, authorities accused them of having an unlawful association with the AA.
"They arrested them concluding that they had connections to the AA and had been supporting AA with earnings from sales of the calendars," Moe Thanda Khin said.
"They have been charged under Section 17(1) and given a two-year prison sentence," she said.
The AA employs a "highly sophisticated public relations strategy" to evoke memories of the ancient kingdom of Arakan, the former name of Rakhine state, including advocating for "the way of the Rakhita" which calls for self-determination and the restoration of Arakanese sovereignty, according to an Amnesty International report on war crimes in Rakhine state issued earlier this year.
The AA has significant support from the state's ethnic Rakhine population, "many of whom are captivated by the narrative of righting historical wrongs and restoring the ancient kingdom's glory," the report said.
'Sentences are unnecessary'
Tin Aung Htoo, chairman of the Rakhine National Network and an attorney for the defendants, said lawyers met with some ministers of the Ayeyarwady regional government when the charges were filed to argue that the case should be dropped.
"We appealed to them that this case could cause further complications and the accused men could incur heavy losses in their lives due to the prosecution," he said.
"In fact, they were not trying to harm the rule of law," he said. "They have the right to sell the calendars. We appealed to them, that even if they had made mistakes, they should be released with warnings for the sake of their prospects as young people."
At the time, the ministers said they would take care of the matter after consulting with legal authorities, but the men have now been sentenced, Tin Aung Htoo said.
"These sentences are unnecessary," he said. "Besides, it clearly indicates that the government bodies are not in line with the legislative bodies. It also shows that they are charging Rakhine people whenever they [Myanmar soldiers] are engaged in conflict with the Arakan Army. It could cause resentment among the Rakhine people."
The four men are being detained in Pathein Prison in Ayeyarwady region's capital city Pathein.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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