BURMA: Elderly protestor wrongly detained, tried and imprisoned


Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-131-2008
ISSUES: Arbitrary arrest & detention, Freedom of expression, Judicial system, Military, Rule of law, State of emergency & martial law,

Dear friends,

While the Cyclone Nargis tragedy has continued, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has at the same time been closely following the ongoing cases against persons detained and tried in Burma after the nationwide protests of 2007. In this appeal we bring you details of the illegal detaining and trial of U Ohn Than after he held a solo protest on August 23. He has been sentenced to a life sentence after a patently flawed trial.


On 15 August 2007 the government in Burma dramatically increased the cost of fuels prompting a series of small-scale protests that swelled to the nationwide monk-led demonstrations of the following month (see AS-197-2007).

Among the first protestors was 60-year-old U Ohn Than. He had joined a number of earlier protests against price rises but had been released after being interrogated. On August 23, however, he went by himself to the front of the then-US embassy in downtown Rangoon and held a placard with a series of points written on each side. On one, he called among other things for the UN secretary general to intervene and support the people’s will for the restoring of parliament. On the other, he called on soldiers to uphold the armed forces’ dignity and defy the orders of their superiors in order to bring an end to dictatorship. He was taken away in a small public vehicle shortly thereafter. (Video footage of his protest can be seen on the DVB website).

Like other protestors, Ohn Than was not arrested according to any law. After being bundled away in a vehicle by men in plain clothes, he was kept in a special military interrogation camp until the end of January when his case was finally brought into a court. Like others, he was not tried in an open court but in a special court inside a prison. And again like others, he was not given access to a lawyer and had to represent himself.

During the trial, no independent witnesses were brought to appear for the prosecution and Ohn Than was also not able to call any witnesses for his defence. Nine witnesses came to appear on the prosecution side. Seven of them were police and local officials. The other two identified themselves as belonging to the Swan-arshin gangs that have been set up to do the dirty work of security agencies during recent years. Under cross-examination from Ohn Than one of them admitted that he was assigned by the local council to do the work. Both of them said that they were working with the local police. (For more on Swan-arshin see AS-173-2007)

Out of the nine witnesses, only five were related to the August 23 protest. The others were related to two previous protests in which Ohn Than had been involved earlier in the year but not arrested (other persons were arrested in those). However, when the case for the August protest was brought against him the police also brought in the details of the other cases.

In his defence, Ohn Than said that he had acted out of concern for the nation after the price rises and fear that there could be another bloodbath like in 1988. He also pointed out that there had been protests twice earlier in the year with groups of a hundred or so persons in the same place but no one had ever been charged from these: in fact, he was referring to the government-sponsored “demonstrations” outside the US embassy against foreign interference in the country. When he asked a township police superintendent in cross-examination if anyone from these protests was ever charged and the officer replied that he was not involved, the judge said the question was inadmissible even though it was clearly related to his case and he was trying to show that he had been treated differently from those persons. The judge also asked Ohn Than after his testimony if he was acting on behalf of anyone else and he replied firmly that he protested on his own to represent the true wishes of the people.

Finally, the judge concluded that standing alone at a busy place in front of a foreign embassy with a placard amounted to an act of sedition and sentenced Ohn Than to life imprisonment on April 2. 

After his conviction Ohn Than was transferred to the Khanti Prison in Sagaing Division, upper Burma, apparently in order to isolate him from his family and other persons inside the prison whom he might know. At last report he had been suffering from cerebral malaria and there were serious concerns about his health.


U Ohn Than has been inside prisons in Burma for much of the last 20 years. He was sentenced to eight years in jail for organising in Shwegu Township the 1988 protests that brought down the then-government of General Ne Win. He was released in 1995 but rearrested and sentenced to seven years in December 1996 for writing and distributing material that was construed as anti-government. After his release in 2003 he launched a solo protest outside the UN office in Rangoon on 21 September 2004 and received another two years.

The AHRC referred to Ohn Than’s being taken away and detained briefly in an appeal at the time of the protests last year: UA-260-2007. See also the treatment meted out shortly thereafter on Htin Kyaw and Ko Zaw Nyunt, in the lead up to the major protests of September: AS-201-2007. See also AL-022-2007.

The AHRC has been documenting in detail some of the cases of illegal arrest, detention and prosecution since the nationwide protests in Burma last September. See for instance the cases of Honey Oo and Aung Min Naing (AHRC-UAC-083-3008), Khin Sanda Win (AHRC-UAC-022-2008) and Ko Thiha (AHRC-UAC-052-2008). See also some lists of monks and nuns forcibly disrobed and held after the demonstrations: AHRC-UAC-024-2008.

For more links and other material on the protests in Burma of August and September 2007 visit: http://campaigns.ahrchk.net/burmaprotests/

For the work of the AHRC on Cyclone Nargis visit: http://campaigns.ahrchk.net/cyclonenargis/

See also the comprehensive report on Burma: “Burma, political psychosis and legal dementia” issued by the AHRC’s sister organisation and the 2007 AHRC Human Rights Report chapter on Burma. 
Please write to the persons listed below to call for the release of U Ohn Than from imprisonment. Please note that for the purpose of the letter, the country should be referred to by its official title of Myanmar, rather than Burma, and Yangon instead of Rangoon.

Please be informed that the AHRC is writing a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Myanmar and independence of judges and lawyers as well as the UN Special Representative on human rights defenders, the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN regional human rights office for Southeast Asia, calling for interventions into this case.


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Dear ___________,

MYANMAR: Solo protestor convicted to life imprisonment despite numerous breaches of criminal and trial procedure

Details of victim: 
U Ohn Than, 60, National ID No. 14YaKaNa(Naing)102550, son of U Thanu, of Aungmingalar Road, Aungmingalar Ward, Tamwe Township, Yangon, Myanmar
Responsible officials and witnesses in court case: 
1. Police Superintendent Soe Naing, Police ID No. La-147569, Kyauktada Township Police
2. Police Constable Bo Bo Soe, Police ID No. La-211326, Kyauktada Township Police
3. U Nyi Lin Hpyoe, 46, National ID No. 12KaTaTa(Naing)008822, real estate agent, Swan-arshin member
4. U Khin Maung Myint, 47, National ID No. ERGM-022560, trader, Swan-arshin member
5. U Maung Maung Htun, chairman, Papedan Ward No. 9 Peace and Development Council
6. U Win Naing, National ID No. 12-Ka-PaPaKa(Naing)012555, member, Papedan Ward No. 1 Peace and Development Council
7. Police Deputy Superintendent Thein Naing, Kyauktada Township Police
8. Police Superintendent Kyaw Tin, Papedan Township Police
9. Police Deputy Superintendent Thein Naing Oo, Papedan Township Police
Charge and trial: Detained after 1pm, 23 August 2007 outside former Embassy of the United States of America, Kyauktada Township, Yangon; held at Kyaikkasan Interrogation Camp without charge; charged with sedition, Penal Code sn. 124A in Yangon Western District Court (Separate Courthouse) on 30 January 2008, Felony No. 12/2008, presided over by Judge Kyaw Swe, Deputy District Judge No. 3, Judge No. Ta/1867; convicted to life imprisonment on 2 April 2008

I am writing to express my dismay at the news that yet another person has been wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment in Myanmar for his role in expressing legitimate dissatisfaction about the dramatic hike in fuel prices on 15 August 2007.

According to the information that I have received, 60-year-old U Ohn Than was taken from the street outside the former embassy of the United States in Yangon by a group of men in plain clothes after 1pm on August 23 when he staged a solo protest, which followed two earlier occasions in the year when he had joined with other people, at 3:30pm on February 22 at Theindawgyi Market and again at 4:40 on April 25, on Mahabandoola Road. During his protest, U Ohn Than stood silently with a placard appealing for United Nations intervention into the situation in Myanmar and for the personnel of the Myanmar Armed Forces and Myanmar Police Force to join with the people in bringing a change of government. However, this was found by the court to be sufficient for his conviction and a life sentence to be given.

I have been informed of the following violations of criminal procedure at time of arrest, detention and trial that invalidate the case against U Ohn Than:

1. Illegal arrest: None of the men who snatched U Ohn Than and threw him into a vehicle were in uniform or identified themselves. Although at least two police claim to have been involved (numbers 2 & 7 above), at least two others have identified themselves as working with the police and local councils under the “Swan-arshin”, a group that has no public face in Myanmar or legal standing under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) with which to carry out arrests of this sort. Section 59 of the CrPC also provides that where a person is arrested by private citizens then the person is to be taken directly to a police station but in this case U Ohn Than was taken to the Kyaikkasan Interrogation Camp, a special military facility, apparently with the authorisation of the police officers concerned, which again violates criminal procedure.

2. Illegal detention: U Ohn Than was not kept in a police station or for a period of less than 24 hours as required by the law of Myanmar (CrPC section 61). He was held at the Kyaikkasan camp without reference to any law and a case was not filed against him in court until 30 January 2008. Thus he was held incognito in illegal detention for 160 days before the case was filed.

3. Multiple breaches of trial procedure: The criminal trial of U Ohn Than was held in a closed court and he was unable to call witnesses to aid his defence, in violation of the Judiciary Law 2000 (section 2[e]) and the CrPC (section 352). He was not able to hire a lawyer to represent him (section 340, CrPC). The only witnesses for the prosecution were government officials and police, including the two persons who identified themselves before the court as members of the “Swan-arshin” gangs operating with the police under orders of township councils; there were no independent witnesses at all. Only five of the witnesses (numbers 1-4 and 7) were related to the August 23 protest; the others were called to testify in relation to the two other protests earlier in the year at which U Ohn Than had been present but was not arrested and charged. A question by the accused to a police officer about whether or not groups of persons who had on and before 12 February 2007 protested outside the US Embassy (which were apparently backed by the authorities) had also been arrested and charged was removed from the court record as inadmissible on the grounds that it did not relate to the case at hand, despite the obvious connection and the clear point that the accused was trying to make about the double standards in the treatment of himself versus those other persons.

These are just a few of the most obvious features of this case against U Ohn Than that make clear how it was from the start a case without merit under any standards of either domestic or international law and I thus call for his immediate release from prison. I especially call for the concerned senior officials, including the Minister of Home Affairs, the Director General of Police, the Attorney General and the Chief Justice to examine the case in detail in order to redress the flagrant errors of law, blatant injustices and violations of human rights of which it consists, and take action against the responsible officials who have either willfully or negligently failed utterly in their duties.

I also take this opportunity to call for the release from imprisonment of all persons jailed in August and September of 2007 for having protested in response to the intolerable rises in fuel prices and other incidents of that time, and for the Government of Myanmar to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all places of detention in accordance with the terms of its internationally-established mandate without further delay.

Yours sincerely


1. Maj-Gen. Maung Oo
Minister for Home Affairs
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +95 67 412 439

2. Lt-Gen. Thein Sein
Prime Minister
c/o Ministry of Defence
Tel: + 95 1 372 681
Fax: + 95 1 652 624

3. U Aung Toe
Chief Justice
Office of the Supreme Court
Office No. 24
Tel: + 95 67 404 080/ 071/ 078/ 067 or + 95 1 372 145
Fax: + 95 67 404 059

4. U Aye Maung
Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General
Office No. 25
Tel: +95 67 404 088/ 090/ 092/ 094/ 097
Fax: +95 67 404 146/ 106

5. Brig-Gen. Khin Yi
Director General
Myanmar Police Force
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +95 67 412 439

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme 
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (ua@ahrchk.org)