Washington, D.C.: Freedom Now welcomes the release of Burmese interfaith peace activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt. The pair spent nearly two years in a Mandalay prison, sentenced to hard labor on trumped up charges related to their activism. They are among the 259 prisoners released by President Htin Kyaw’s amnesty order issued in advance of the Union Peace Conference.
“Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt are selfless activists, unjustly imprisoned for championing peace and bridging religious divides,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “We are grateful for their freedom, however we call on the Burmese government to ensure that all prisoners of conscience are released.”
Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt are members of the Peace Seeker and Multiculturalist Movement, an interfaith foundation which includes members from a variety of faiths, including Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. Their imprisonment is related to two missions they undertook with the organization. The first was a visit to the Kachin state in June 2013 when they participated in a peace march in order to promote interfaith awareness to a town where the Kachin Independence Army is headquartered. The second mission occurred in April 2014 when the two activists visited the Chin state, a region in western Burma that borders India, to deliver humanitarian aid.
In 2015, the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha began to campaign for Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt’s arrest. The group had obtained photos of Zaw Zaw Latt from his Facebook account and took issue with several of his activities, including sitting back-to-back with Buddhist monks, sitting in a monk’s chair, and sitting on the same level as the monks. Through social media, Ma Ba Tha claimed that Zaw Zaw Latt was encouraging interfaith “mating” and was working with “Buddhist monks that betray Buddhism.” In June 2015, the group published a five-page article calling for Zaw Zaw Latt to be prosecuted for “insulting religion” and for Burmese authorities to “take legal action against him and punish him.”
On July 14, 2015, Zaw Zaw Latt was arrested by plain-clothes officers without an arrest warrant. The next day, he was charged with violating the Unlawful Associations Act, the charges stemming from a photo taken of him with the Kachin Independence Army during the 2013 interfaith visit to the Kachin state. On July 19, police arrested Pwint Phyu Latt. She was charged with violating the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, with the charges stemming from a photo of her and six other people taken during the visit to Chin state purportedly showing them making an illegal border crossing to India. On February 26, 2016, the activists were sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor for the Immigration Act charges. An additional two years with hard labor was ordered on April 8, 2016 in relation to the Unlawful Association charges. On July 4, 2016, their final appeal was denied.
Earlier this week, Burma’s highest Buddhist authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, effectively banned Ma Ba Tha, determining it to be an illegitimate organization.