Hope fades for freedom of expression in Myanmar

Media and activists who criticize military remain targeted and detained despite amnesty for jailed Reuters reporters
Hope fades for freedom of expression in Myanmar

Myanmar military officials Major General Tun Tun Nyi (left), Major General Soe Naing Oo (center) and Major General Zaw Min Tun (right) attend a rare military press conference in capital Naypyidaw on Jan.18. Activists and rights groups say the military is targeting critics, especially the media. (Photo by Thet Aung/AFP)

While the world hailed Myanmar for granting a presidential pardon to two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on May 7 after they spent 500 days behind bars for exposing a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, other human rights abuses continue unabated in the country.

On April 22, seven people from a satirical performance troupe called Peacock Generation were charged with criminal defamation for lambasting the military during their Myanmar New Year celebrations in April.

Police took five of them in handcuffs to a court in Yangon on May 22 where they were being tried for violating section 505(a) of the penal code.

They could face up to two years in prison, a fine, or both under a section of the code that criminalizes the circulation of statements, rumors or reports with the intent of causing any military officer to disregard or fail their duties.

Meanwhile, on April 12, film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was detained for insulting and defaming the Tatmadaw — the official name of Myanmar's armed forces — due to his criticism of the military-drafted 2008 constitution via some Facebook posts.

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The filmmaker, who also ranks as founder of the Human Rights, Human Dignity International Film festival, is said to be seriously ill after having undergone two operations due to liver cancer. He is now being sued by the military and has been denied bail twice.

If he is successfully prosecuted, he could spend two years in jail under a vaguely worded law that rights group say is being used to stifle dissent.

In yet another controversial case, the military is suing Ye Ni, the Burmese-language editor of independent news outlet The Irrawaddy, for criminal defamation over its coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State, home to the Rohingya. The military has blasted the coverage as being "one-sided."

Repressive laws

Activists and rights groups have voiced concern about the surging number of arrests of critics of the military and government, which they see as a mounting assault on people's freedom of expression.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said it is easy for the Tatmadaw to file criminal cases to stifle critics, with journalists, satirists, students and activists now facing its wrath.

He said as long as these repressive laws remain in place, military officials will keep abusing them to make their critics suffer.

"The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party needs to wake up, listen to the former political prisoners among their ranks, and use its parliamentary majority to abolish these rights-abusing laws while they still have a chance to do so," Robertson told ucanews.com.

He said the problem is the NLD leadership appreciates the benefits these laws offer it without fully realizing they are "a double edged sword that will eventually be used to cut the person wielding the law."

The HRW said local authorities have been arresting peaceful critics under a range of laws, especially Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and Section 505 of the penal code.

The former has been used repeatedly against online critics while Section 505, a broadly worded provision that does not allow for pretrial release on bail, has been used mainly by the military.

Amnesty International said it has recorded a surge in politically motivated arrests, mostly aimed at figures that have targeted the military for criticism.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's East and Southeast Asia Director, said Myamnar retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists, and any perceived critics of the authorities.

"Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest," Bequelin said in a May 7 statement.

The United Nations Human Rights Office has warned that freedom of expression remains heavily restricted in the country, with spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani calling the situation "dire."

She said the rights office issued a set of recommendations last year aimed at improving freedom of speech in Myanmar, but "no positive progress has been observed."

Things were expected to improve when Aung San Suu Kyi's government took office in 2016 following a landslide victory during the 2015 general election, which formally ended decades of military rule.

However, activists continue to be arrested and charged under the nation's draconian laws.

Listen to CSOs

Rights advocates now fear that many of the gains made since the political transition to democracy began in 2011 will ultimately be reversed.

Thet Swe Win, an interfaith activist and director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, says the targeting of military critics shows the rivalry between the civilian and military leadership.

Another challenge is the lack of collaboration between Suu Kyi's government and civil society groups (CSOs), who are often viewed as "enemies."

"We will fight for freedom of expression and continue to criticize the government and military. The government must listen to CSOs and let free speech prevail," Thet Swe Win told ucanews.com.

He said parliament must make a bold move by repealing such repressive laws in collaboration and consultation with CSOs.

Thet Swe Win was among 17 activists in Yangon who led anti-war protests in May 2018 and were subsequently charged for illegal assembly.

The military has been facing pressure from the international community over its bloody crackdown in Rakhine that caused over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

The U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) said on May 14 that military commanders must answer charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

After having ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for decades, the military still wields enormous power through its control of the defense, home affairs and border ministries, and with a guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament.

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