Freed interfaith activists reflect on their imprisonment and release

10 June 2017
Freed interfaith activists reflect on their imprisonment and release
Zaw Zaw Latt, right/centre, with Pwint Phyu Latt, left/centre celebrate their freedom.​ Photo: Bo Bo/Mizzima

Everything changed for Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt in June 2015, when the Mandalay-based interfaith activists and National League for Democracy party members became the target of Myanmar’s feared ultra-nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha. 
On June 9, Ahtu Mashi, Ma Ba Tha’s Mandalay journal, published a five-page personal attack directed towards Zaw Zaw Latt, calling for authorities to detain the peace activist, who is Muslim. Ma Ba Tha charged him with insulting their religion by working with a “Buddhist Monk who betrays Buddhism” and encouraging “mating” between people of different religions. One month later, Zaw Zaw Latt was arrested. Five days after that, his colleague Pwint Phyu Latt was taken into custody as well. 
Although the courts sentenced them to two-year prison terms for violating the Immigration and Unlawful Association Acts, after they visited restricted areas of Kachin State two years prior, many human rights organizations called their arrest a politically motivated move to silence prominent Muslim voices for peace.
Last month, after two years in prison, Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt were pardoned by Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, along with 250 other prisoners, at the start of the 21st Century Panglong Talks, the second round of peace talks between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups in Nay Pyi Taw. 
Threats to those afraid of peace
Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt – who are not related - are members of an interfaith group called Thint Myat Lo Thu Myar, or Peace Seekers, which was founded to promote interfaith peace after the 2013 Meiktila anti-Muslim riots by Buddhist monk Asha Alinn Yaung Sayadaw.
Less than one week after their release, the newly freed activists spoke with Mizzima in an extended interview.
As they explained, their group works to improve inter-religious cooperation at the grassroots level. “As an interfaith activist, I work with every religion,” Pwint Phyu Latt said. “Instead of debating our differences, it’s better to adjust people to those differences.” 
Trouble came for the two activists as a result of a trip they made with the Peace Seekers into rebel-controlled territory in Kachin State. Along with other members of their peace delegation, including a Buddhist monk, the two traveled to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army to deliver a Christian cross and a statue of the Buddha to the Christian-dominant region. Pictures of the trip, including one with Zaw Zaw Latt holding a gun, were posted on Facebook. 
Two years passed without any problems. This changed when Ma Ba Tha took them to task in Ahtu Mashi and then led a Facebook campaign against them. Photos from their peacebuilding trip was the only evidence they needed, and in fact was the primary evidence that prosecutors used against them at their trial. 
“They [Ma Ba Tha] made personal attacks and started rumours about me on Facebook. They also called me up and threated my life,” Zaw Zaw recalled. 
“They insulted my dignity as a woman by starting rumuors about me on Facebook as well,” Pwint Phyu Latt added. “They threatened our lives. They stalked our society, our families and everyone around us. Yet, I’m not going to give up or back off. I’m going to keep working for peace between religions, for myself, my community and my country, even if it’s more dangerous now.”
Soon after the smear campaign, they were arrested by the police. The youth activists were found guilty on February 26, 2016 by a judge at the Chan Aye Tharzan court. The court cited the Facebook photos of Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt visiting the Kachin rebel camp as evidence that they violated section 13(1) of the 1947 Immigration Emergency Provision Act, a remnant of the colonial legal system. For this violation, they received two years of prison, and later received an additional two years in April 2016 for violating Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act.  
Why did the courts react so strongly to a peace-building trip from years ago? 
Pwint Phyu Latt believes that the ultra-nationalist Buddhist group and their allies in the criminal justice system wanted to silence their persistent calls for peace: “The other side thinks that if they make us stop from doing our work, all the young people we work with will get nervous and stop as well. The people who did this were not from this Government. They were just the Government of authority. They made up fake news again and again.”
The campaign succeeded in bringing fear and locking up the youth leaders, yet, both remain committed to inter-faith peace and refuse to let fear win. 
Zaw Zaw Latt is defiant. “They said they would kill me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m not going to stop my work. I’m still going to do whatever I want. My belief is that whether I’m dead or alive is God’s will. If I’m alive, I’ll continue doing what I want. I’ll continue working for the needs of the public, community and our country. But, I’m nervous doing this,” he said. 
However, things have changed for the ultra-nationalist group since their campaign against the interfaith activists in 2015. This March, Myanmar’s highest council of monks, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, ordered Ma Ba Tha’s most vocal leader, Ashin Wirathu, to cease giving public sermons, “as he has repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hider efforts to uphold the rule of law,” according to a statement released by the council. Last week, the Maha Nayaka Committee ordered Ma Ba Tha to cease all its activities. Nonetheless, the group’s powerful anti-Muslim sentiment remains, and they have simply reopened under a new name, the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation.
Lessons from Ohbo
Fresh out of Mandalay’s Ohbo Prison, Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt were both eager to speak about the problems that inmates face in Myanmar’s criminal justice system. The main problem, according to the pair, is that too many people in Myanmar are unfairly sent to jail, and little is done to make sure inmates do not return to a life of crime after their release. 
Both activists found their jails to be severely overcrowded. “The prison I was sent to fits only 3,000 people, but there were around 6,000 prisoners there, and that’s just not reasonable,” Zaw Zaw Latt claimed. “I couldn’t move around when I slept because the place is too narrow. We had to sleep so close to one another that I could only sleep if I turned on my side.”
The situation for female inmates was not very different. “My prison should only have 400 people, 500 at most, but there were more than 1,000 people there. The more people that are crowded into a prison, the more fights and problems there will be,” Pwint Phyu Latt added.
Aside from prisoners like them, who were arguably jailed for political reasons, they saw many drug users, sex workers and thieves come in and out of the prison again and again. The rate of recidivism was so high, they said, is in part because the prison offered little useful job training and education that inmates could use once they were released. Instead, they often turned back to a life of crime.
Both activists also believe that the government must reconsider the way it treats drugs users. Instead of sending people who are addicted to drugs to jail again and again, Zaw Zaw Latt thinks they should receive small fines or treatment. 
“It’s wasting the government’s finances,” Pwint Phyu Latt said. “It is 600 kyat per person per day to house a prisoner, and there are way too many people there. If we calculate this logically and carefully, that is way too many kyat a month and too much wasted money. The government should not put criminals into prison when they don’t teach them effective careers and good behaviour. Taking them into prison doesn’t work. It’s just such an ineffective way,” she said.
Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, of course, were excited about their release from prison, but because of what they saw there, their pardon was also bittersweet. 
“I’m happy to see the people who came to greet us, but I just feel sad for the people still in prison,” Zaw Zaw Latt said. Pwint Phyu Latt seconded her colleague. “Although I have escaped, I am not completely glad. I want the government to do the same for the many unnecessary prisoners who are still stuck there,” she said.    
Working towards a brighter future
Now that they are free, Pwin Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt look forward to continuing their work promoting peace between Myanmar’s religious groups.  Zaw Zaw Latt, who used to work as an organizer for the NLD, continues to have faith in the party’s principles, but is weary of their slow approach to reconciliation.  He believes that in order alleviate the hostility between many Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, politicians and activists alike must work at the grassroots level. 
“Our problems appear because of the everyday people. If we work for peace, and want our nation to be peaceful, we should start from the bottom. It’s useless if I ask somebody uneducated to read high standard books and ask him or her what peace is. It’s just not going to work. Instead of spending too much money on unnecessary things, the government should teach people what is right and what’s wrong from the bottom,” he said.
Their goal is to improve relationships between individuals, not just for people who share their faith, but their entire nation. “I am a Muslim, but I’m doing all these things for my country, not for Islam. I just want you to know that,” Zaw Zaw Latt stressed.
Key to improving relationships between religious groups is assimilation, both activists noted. “Instead of different religions staying separate, like enemies, it would be great to create for us to assimilate and be friendly with one another,” Zaw Zaw Latt said.
One person who achieved this was U Ko Ni, a lawyer and advisor to the NLD, who was perhaps the most prominent Muslim politician in the country until his assassination in January at the hands of extremists. 
Just days after their release from prison, the pair visited their colleague’s grave to pay respects. 
“I was not sad after our elder’s death because we share a religion, but because of who he was as a person. I see this as an intense loss for our country,” Pwint Phyu Latt said. 
“He taught us what we can do to have a great future ahead,” Zaw Zaw Latt added.
Although they too have received death threats for their work towards interfaith peace, the recently released activists are committed to continuing where U Ko Ni left off.  For Pwint Phyu Latt, this means letting go of the ego, by putting peace before individual ambition.
“I want humans to live, not just as humans, but as humans with humanity. Society should be made up of love and peace. If one group of people is hated unfairly, soon the whole society will be separated and ruined. There should be no hatred between religions. Everyone needs to sympathize with the experience of others,” she said.