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Environmental activist ‘well-hated’ by Myanmar junta is latest to be arrested

  • As demonstrations and deadly crackdowns continue in Myanmar, land and environmental defenders are increasingly under threat.
  • On Sept. 6, environmental and democracy activist Kyaw Minn Htut became one of the latest political prisoners; authorities had detained his wife and 2-year-old son a day earlier.
  • He had openly challenged the military and reported on illegal environmental activities, making him a “well-known and well-hated” target, fellow activists said.
  • Some 20 environmental organizations across the world have signed a statement calling for Kyaw Minn Htut’s release.

As demonstrations and deadly crackdowns continue to roil Myanmar following the military coup in February, land and environmental defenders are increasingly under threat.

In the seven months since protests erupted, the junta’s clampdown on dissent has caused more than 1,000 deaths. Nearly 8,000 people have been arrested, with 6,324 still detained. On Sept. 6, environmental and democracy activist Kyaw Minn Htut became one of the latest political prisoners.

His arrest comes after another defender, Man Zar Myay Mon, was shot and detained in June. Both men were active members of several prominent civil society and environmental groups, including the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), a network of more than 400 civil society organizations nationwide, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global watchdog group.

According to local reports, Kyaw Minn Htut, his brother and his uncle were arrested at the latter’s home by soldiers in the Sagaing region. His wife and their 2-year-old son had both been arrested the day before.

Kyaw Minn Htut. Image courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Police reports state Kyaw Minn Htut was detained under Article 50 of the country’s Counterterrorism Law, and allege he supported and gave financial help to groups classified as terrorists by the junta, the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said in a Sept. 8 statement signed by 20 environmental groups calling for his release.

Prior to his arrest, Kyaw Minn Htut, who also chaired the legal aid committee of the National League for Democracy, the former ruling party, in his hometown of Mingin, had supported democracy activists in peaceful resistance against the military regime.

Last year, he sued a member of parliament from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party over the use of hate speech in election campaigns, and was subsequently imprisoned before being released on bail in December 2020.

Faith Doherty, head of the forests campaign at the EIA, said she feared Kyaw Minn Htut’s latest arrest could be an act of vengeance by the junta, and called the terrorism claims “trumped up, farcical charges.”

Ko Ye, a fellow activist and friend of Kyaw Minn Htut’s, also denounced the allegations as “totally ridiculous.” “We criticize the military’s authoritarian processes and act as a check-and-balance, so they attack us with this counterterrorism law. Actually, they are the terrorists,” he said.

Citizens protest the Myanmar military coup in Kayin State in Feb 2021. Image by Ninjastrikers via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Beyond his roles in MATA and EITI, Kyaw Minn Htut had been a longtime forest defender who advocated for sustainable forest management and standard-setting processes to certify timber legality alongside the Myanmar Forest Certification Committee.

He was also a member of the European Union Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (EU FLEGT) multistakeholder group. EU FLEGT aims to reduce illegal logging and improve governance throughout the EU’s timber supply chain, including in source countries such as Myanmar.

As part of his duties, Kyaw Minn Htut regularly conducted on-the-ground monitoring of forests and reported on illegal logging activities. “He performed his work well, so he was well-known and well-hated,” Ko Ye said.

“[Kyaw Minn Htut] has been a clear, strong voice tirelessly championing forest protection and rights for many years as Myanmar took its first tentative steps towards democracy and credible forest governance,” Doherty said in a statement.

But now that Myanmar’s quasi-democracy has collapsed, his voice has made him a clear target of the junta, Indigenous Karen activist Esther Wah said. “Environmental activists like [Kyaw Minn Htut] know what’s happening on the ground. We know how to raise our voices and be heard by international media. The military doesn’t like that at all,” she said.

As the crackdown on dissidents continues to escalate, many environmental and land rights defenders, including Wah, have fled the country or gone into hiding. Their persecution comes amid a surge in extractive activities, as the junta turns to Myanmar’s natural resources to fund its repressive regime.

An active jade mine in Hpakant township in Kachin state, northern Myanmar. Image by Arezarni via Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Since the coup, rare-earth mining and illegal logging activities have reportedly ramped up in the Kachin and Sagaing regions. Progress made toward greater transparency and governance in the timber sector, and incorporating civil society in forest protection solutions, has also been “destroyed overnight,” the EIA said.

Long-running, grassroots-led forest conservation programs are now in disarray, as local communities pour their energies into fighting military troops. At the same time, watchdog groups are being muzzled by personal security concerns.

“The [junta] are starting to target environmental networks,” Wah said. With their detailed and brutal interrogations, “if they get one person, they will get another,” she added. “Then everything is going to get worse, because [the junta] will do whatever they want, with no rules and no laws.”

Illegal log trucks, Myanmar. Image courtesy of EIA.

Ko Ye said that Kyaw Minn Htut was in a particularly dangerous situation. “They hate him much more than the others,” he said. “He was already a well-known enemy of the military. He sued and openly challenged them. He reported on illegal environmental activities.”

He called on authorities to disclose where they’re holding Kyaw Minn Htut and his family members, and allow them access to due legal processes. “We haven’t heard anything about any of them,” he said. “We’re worried the military will take revenge on him and his family. They can be tortured and killed.”

Banner image of Kyaw Minn Htut. Image courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

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