Myanmar’s authorities have in recent weeks engaged in a series of arrests of peaceful critics of the army and government, Human Rights Watch said. The parliament, which begins its new session on April 29, 2019, should repeal or amend repressive laws used to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression.
The recent upswing in arrests of satirical performers, political activists, and journalists reflects the rapid decline in freedom of expression in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. In the latest blow to media freedom, on April 23, the Supreme Court upheld the seven-year prison sentences of two Reuters journalists accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who won Pulitzer prizes earlier in April for their reporting, had been prosecuted in apparent retaliation for their investigation of a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Inn Din, Rakhine State, that implicated the army.
“Myanmar’s government should be leading the fight against the legal tools of oppression that have long been used to prosecute critics of the military and government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “During military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi and many current lawmakers fought for free expression, yet now the NLD majority in parliament has taken almost no steps to repeal or amend abusive laws still being used to jail critics.”
The 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. Section 66(d) 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.
On April 22, Yangon’s Mayangone Township Court ordered five members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe detained without bail for their satirical performance, traditionally performed during Myanmar’s April New Year holiday. Thangyat is a form of slam poetry that has long been a vehicle for humorous criticism of everything from politics to social behavior. Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Paing Phyo Min, and Pho Thar were sent to Insein Prison on charges under penal code section 505(a), which makes it a crime to make any statement “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such.” They face up to two years in prison and a fine.
Police had previously arrested three of the five Peacock Generation members on April 15, along with another member Su Yadanar Myint, and charged them with violating section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. The four, who had posted a livestream of their performance on Facebook that was then shared on YouTube, had been released on bail.
Up to 25 more members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe have been reportedly sued under section 66(d) since April 23, but their names have not been released. The troupe members are to appear in court on April 29.
“Myanmar’s authorities are demonstrating how thin-skinned they are if they are arresting people for telling jokes,” Adams said. “They should immediately drop all charges against the members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe and allow them to freely express themselves.”
In a disturbing recent case, the authorities detained filmmaker and human rights activist, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, on criminal charges for a series of Facebook posts criticizing the role of the military under the country’s 2008 constitution. At a hearing on April 12, the court denied him bail even though he has liver cancer.
And on April 22, the military filed a criminal case against the editor of local media outlet The Irrawaddy under section 66(d) for its coverage of fighting between the army and the ethnic armed group the Arakan Army. The Irrawaddy has been regularly reporting on civilian casualties and internally displaced people caught in the hostilities, which flared up in January.
“During Myanmar’s long military dictatorship, numerous governments and donors made freedom of expression and freeing political prisoners the cornerstone of their policy,” Adams said. “At a time when Myanmar’s transformation to a rights-respecting democracy hangs in the balance, where are those same voices?”