A fugitive former lawmaker from Myanmar’s main opposition party who had been on the run for more than a year after being charged with sedition for allegedly condemning the country’s leaders while speaking at a rally opposing U.S. sanctions on senior military officials, turned himself in to police on Monday, a police official said.
Hla Swe, a former upper house legislator from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), showed up at the Yangon Western District Police Station, said Myanmar police spokesman Police Colonel Kyaw Thiha.
The ex-politician was transferred to Insein Prison on the outskirts of the commercial city in the afternoon. His court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 11, said nationalist Win Ko Ko Latt, adding that he did not know why Hla Swe, who faces up to life in prison if found guilty, turned himself in.
Hla Swe was charged with sedition under Section 124(a) of Myanmar’s colonial-era Penal Code on Aug. 7, 2019, for allegedly denouncing country leaders during a speech outside Yangon City Hall four days earlier.
The former fugitive also faces a lawsuit in Yangon’s Kyauktada township court under Section 295 for hate speech against Islam, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported. The statute carries a two-year jail sentence, a fine, or both.
Prior to his arrest, Hla Swe said in a video interview posted on the Facebook page “Myanmar Hard Talk” that he was “avoiding the charges against him because he did not deserve them” and that he had resurfaced to reveal what he said was the unfairness of the Nov. 8 general elections, which the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.
The interview appeared to be the first post on the Facebook page, which was created on Dec. 24.
The interview video was shared by many people, though the page was no longer available online as of Monday evening local time.
It is not clear whether the Facebook page was the same as another “Myanmar Hard Talk” page that Facebook removed in October for violating community standards.
Facebook said that account “took advantage of the grey area between outright disinformation and legitimate political commentary to spread a nationalist, pro-military agenda.”
RFA called Myo Myint, the deputy administrator of Kyauktada township who is the plaintiff in the case involving Hla Swe, but he declined to answer questions and told a reporter to ask the court’s information department about the case. RFA could not reach the Yangon Western District Court’s information department for comment.
Myanmar’s former information minister-turned-political analyst Ye Htut said Hla Swe’s surrender after a year on the run is a disgrace for the former politician.
“My view is that Hla Swe should not have fled in the first place,” he said. “We have to take responsibility for what we say. He had a responsibility to defend himself in court. Instead, he evaded arrest and has surrendered only now, which is politically disgraceful for a politician.”
Hla Swe won a seat representing Magwe region’s Gangaw township in Myanmar’s upper house of parliament in the country’s 2010 elections. He ran again for the same seat in the 2015 elections, but lost.
The 60-year-old former army lieutenant colonel also served as director of government-run Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV).
Before he became a fugitive, Hle Swe gave speeches at nationalist movement rallies, as did ultranationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu, who also was charged for the same crime under Section 124(a) of the Penal Code in May 2019 and surrendered to police at Yangon’s Western District Police Office on this Nov. 2.
Aye Paing, an attorney assisting defendants involved in the nationalist movement, said Hla Swe and Wirathu tuned themselves over to authorities because their charges could only be resolved in court.
“Under Article 512 of the Criminal Procedure Code, if a defendant is declared a fugitive, the case will not be settled without a court hearing,” he said. “Therefore, they decided to face the charges in court. The maximum sentence for their charges is up to life imprisonment.”
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said the arrests of two prominent nationalist activists may have been motivated by curiosity about the people supporting them.
“First, let’s just say they’ve come out to face the law rather than flee as fugitives,” he said. “Second, they might want to know that if by surrendering there will be any supporters who will protest [against their charges].”
Wirathu, who also is being held in Insein Prison, is attending court proceedings via videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Dec. 15, a court in Yangon’s Insein township sentenced three nationalist supporters of the convicted assassin of Ko Ni, a Muslim legal adviser to the NLD and to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to one year in prison with hard labor, The Irrawaddy reported. The trio of men evaded arrest for more than two years before handing themselves over to police.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Thane Aung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.