The Myanmar government should immediately free political activist Khaing Myo Htun and investigate allegations that the army has committed abuses against civilians in Rakhine State, EarthRights International (ERI) said today.

Khaing Myo Htun, a member of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and prominent environmental activist, was arrested last week accused of sedition and incitement under Myanmar’s draconian penal code after implicating the army in crimes against humanity and forced portering of civilians in the Western State.

ERI believes that these charges are politically motivated and being pursued to deter activists from probing ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar’s ethnic minority states.

“The army has once again demonstrated its ruthlessness and unwillingness to change by going after activists who dare to expose its abuses, despite the introduction of a new democratic government,” said Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder and Executive Director of ERI. “Instead of prosecuting an activist fighting for social justice, the government should immediately launch an independent inquiry into these allegations of army misconduct in Rakhine State.”

“It is disgraceful that human rights activists continue to be persecuted for exercising their democratic rights in a country led by a former prisoner of conscience.”

The ALP provoked controversy in April when it published a statement accusing the Myanmar army of violating the Geneva Conventions by targeting civilians for forced portering and torture, warning that this could unravel the peace process. Khaing Myo Htun was subsequently charged under section 505(b) and 505(c) of Myanmar’s colonial era penal code – for sedition and incitement respectively – although his name did not appear on the statement.  The charges were filed on 5 May by Lt-Col Tin Naing Tun, a staff general (grade 1) from the Sittwe-based Regional Operations Command.

Khaing Myo Htun later missed two court hearings because he was traveling and did not receive his summons, resulting in a warrant being put out for his arrest.

ERI has reviewed the audio and video evidence backing torture and forced portering allegations against the army and has deemed that they are credible. Similar abuses have been documented by other human rights monitors. The organization will be helping Khaing Myo Htun with his case, which appears to be linked to his political and social activism.

“Khaing Myo Htun is well known for his outspoken criticism of the military and unscrupulous corporations operating in Rakhine State,” said Oo Kyaw Thein, his lawyer and a Bertha Fellow at ERI. “It appears that he is being targeted as much for his advocacy on human rights and the environment as well as his political work. The charges against him have no grounding in the law.”

Khaing Myo Htun is a former student at the EarthRights School for human rights and environmental activists in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He is a committed campaigner, having worked with Arakan Oil Watch before co-founding Natural Resources for the People and becoming a board member of the Arakan Natural Resources and Environmental Network.

He later joined the ALP as deputy-spokesperson for the Information and Organizing Department. Its armed wing, the Arakan Liberation Front, was one of eight signatories in last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), which formed the country’s first democratically elected government in 60 years in April 2016, has pledged to free all political prisoners in Myanmar. But dozens of activists remain incarcerated and the ruling government has yet to adopt a comprehensive definition of the term ‘political prisoner’.

In 2013, ERI assisted another alumni and women’s rights campaigner, Khin Mi Mi Khaing, while she was on trial for staging a peaceful protest against land grabbing in Bago. She was eventually released after a long and high-profile court case.

“Fear, rights and truth [are] very interconnected,” said Khaing Myo Htun, speaking in a video filmed for ERI’s Faces of Change series. “To overcome the fear we must know our rights. One day when we know the truth and our rights, we will no longer have fear.”

His next court hearing is on Friday 5 August, when he hopes to be granted bail on medical grounds as he suffers from a weak nervous system and requires daily medicine.