Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A court in the western state of Rakhine sentenced ten Burmese activists to prison for participating in protests against the Shwe pipeline, a pipeline linking Myanmar with the city of Kunming, in southern China.
According to yesterday's ruling, the defendants will serve three months in jail, a decision that sparked anger among local residents long opposed to the multibillion-dollar project. At least 300 people from 20 villages in fact surrounded the courthouse in Kyaukpyu Township, calling for their release.
The activists were arrested in April, after they joined street protests by hundreds of people against forced expropriation and ridiculously low compensation.
At the same time, protesters took to the street to demand better transportation infrastructure and higher salaries for local workers.
Demonstrators said they went ahead with the protest after they applied twice for a permit and were denied each time.
For its part, the court convicted the accused under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, a much criticised piece of legislation that requires a permit for peaceful demonstrations, a provision of the law used by the government to silence critics even as Myanmar's semi-civilian, ostensibly pro-reform government undertakes democratic reforms after decades of brutal military rule.
A day after the ruling, many people have asked for the convictions (and punishment) against the ten to be overturned.
Critics point out that the standards on which the ruling was based do not comply with international standards in the field of human rights.
"No genuinely reformist leadership would oversee the prosecution of people who peacefully challenge the state's development plans," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director.
After years of work and billions of dollars of investment, the Shwe pipeline (800 km) crosses the Myanmar boundary with China to supply the mainland's industries. However, according to critics, ordinary Burmese will not greatly benefit from the investment in economic or energy terms.
Once in full operation, the pipeline will carry 12 billion cubic metres of gas, equal to 6 per cent of China's total demand for energy.
Myanmar's national petroleum company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) will get at least US$ 1.8 billion a year in revenue; however, it is unclear how the resources will be distributed and who the real beneficiaries of this huge flow of money will be.