Authorities in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state have arrested three students from the Rakhine Student Union for ignoring a law against large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic by participating in a protest against the Myanmar government’s 15-month internet ban on eight townships in the state. Toe Toe Aung, Kyang Naing Htay and Oo Than Naing staged their protest Wednesday in front of the Rakhine state government office building in the state capital Sittwe, holding signs critical of the government and military. They were arrested mid-protest and were officially charged with violating the Natural Disaster Management Act Thursday evening. According to Myanmar’s military, the government ban on internet service to townships where Myanmar forces have been fighting the rebel Arakan Army (AA) since December 2018 keeps government troop movements secret while dampening speech that incites ethnic tensions. The policy has however hampered aid workers helping war refugees and left people uninformed about the coronavirus pandemic. The director of a local legal support group told RFA’s Myanmar Service that charging the students out of concern for public health was disingenuous. “It is totally irrelevant to charge these students using the Natural Disaster Management Act. They were holding a protest. They didn’t do anything else, so it is obvious the authorities are trying to indict them for protesting,” Nyein Chan of the Thazin Legal Aids group said. “Are they going to charge other crimes like robbery or murder that occur during this pandemic under that same law? We should question them. They are manipulating the law to prosecute these students,” said Nyein Chan. The Legal Clinic Myanmar office told RFA it would provide legal services for the arrested trio. “These students have asked us for legal help. We are cooperating with other CSOs to give the students the help they need. Well will try to prevent them from being charged by irrelevant laws,” said Mya Thuzar, an attorney at the clinic. “As we are now in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are so unstable. So, we will make sure they will not fall into the wrong hands,” Mya Thuzar said. Unlawful arrests A Sittwe University Student Union official told RFA the three students were arrested in unlawful ways. “We are pointing out the wrongdoings of the government and military. I would like to appeal to prosecute them lawfully. They say no one is above the law, whether that is the state government or anyone else,” said the student union’s vice-chair Bhone Pyae Phyo. “The law is the law. They should apply the law equally to everyone, so I would like to appeal to the authorities to handle the case lawfully,” said Bhone Pyae Phyo. Aung Than Wai, a Sittwe resident, told RFA that arresting the students goes against democratic ideals. “The ruling government said they are working to maintain the rule of law, but they always detain everyone who speaks against them. This is very undemocratic,” said Aung Than Wai. “They always try to silence us. We all know how many townships in Rakhine state are under an internet ban and for how long. These students are just trying to highlight that. The government is always trying to control all of us. This is a clear persecution of the people,” the Sittwe resident said. At least 289 civilians have been killed and 641 injured in Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state since hostilities between the AA and the national army escalated in December 2018, according to an RFA tally. Students charged in Mandalay Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, police in Mandalay charged 15 college students from the All Burma Student Union when they also staged protests demanding an end to armed conflicts and the Rakhine internet ban. Ba Chit, a student who got charged by the authorities told RFA, “They summoned me to come for interrogations. They didn’t arrest me. They asked for the details of the protests.” “They also asked about our activities in the past. They asked me to sign a proclamation that we wouldn’t protest again but I refused. They said I was free to go,” Ba Chit said. Kyaw Thiha Ye Kyaw, another member of the student union in Mandalay, told RFA, “I and the other members are still in our college. I told the police I would not come.” “If they come to take me in person, I will go with them. But I will not back down. We are protesting against the 2008 Constitution. So, we will not acknowledge any charges under the constitution,” the student said. RFA attempted to contact the police station in Mandalay for comment but were unsuccessful. Reported by Ni Min Tun and Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.