For decades, the punishment for speaking out against Myanmar’s rulers was simple and guaranteed: a very long stretch behind bars. The new democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power last April, insisted that era was over. But at a Yangon courthouse on Friday, 32-year-old Ma Cho watches as a familiar scene unfolds: her husband, one among a new generation of political prisoners, led from a van into the docks.
He is one of the dozens of people arrested on similar charges under the rule of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Many expected the party – a large number of whose members are former political prisoners – to bring a swift end to prosecutions brought under broad and repressive laws. Instead, they have sky-rocketed.
PEN Myanmar says at least 38 people have been charged with online defamation since April, most under the notorious Article 66D of the Telecommunications Law. Although the legislation was created by the previous military-backed administration to cover the booming telecoms sector, between 2013 and 2015, it was used just seven times.
Now, as the ruling party faces mounting international criticism 10 months into its rule, several cases have been brought by powerful members of the NLD itself. Cases are so common that the law has become a running joke on Facebook. “If someone is teasing us we say, “I’m gonna sue you with 6 6D!”says Maung Saungkha, a poet, and activist who is campaigning to reform the law.
He spent six months in prison last year after posting a satirical poem to Facebook deemed insulting to the then president Thein Sein. One the lines read: “I have a tattoo of the president’s face on my penis/ My wife is disgusted.” “Even now, the NLD government if they think that something is going to insult them then they sue those who post on social media about them,” he says.
Activist Aung Win Hlaing, a member of the National Democratic Force party, was jailed for nine months in September for calling president Htin Kyaw – a Suu Kyi appointee – an “idiot” and “crazy” in a Facebook post. The government had dissolved a committee he was heading two weeks after it was set up, his wife Hnin Hnin Win says. “The NLD says there’s freedom of speech in Myanmar but, for him, it’s getting worse,” she says.
In October, two villagers living near the capital, Naypyitaw, were charged after allegedly ranting about Suu Kyi during a night of drinking. A month later, the Yangon Regional Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein sued the CEO of local news outlet Eleven Media over an editorial that implied he was profiting from corruption.
“These people are not used to the public criticism that arises in a democratic country where the right to free speech is guaranteed,” says Daniel Aguirre, International Legal Adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.
“Also, the internet is relatively new in Myanmar and provides a powerful voice to people that some would prefer to silence… We have already met with members of the civil society reluctant to speak out on legitimate concerns for fear of landing in jail.”
Reporter Maung Maung Tun was slapped with a defamation suit in December for writing an article criticizing state-owned newspaper The Mirror. “I did the right thing by revealing the truth about the person who did wrong,” he told the Myanmar Times at the time. “But the one who did right is now accused. The world is absolutely upside-down.” He says he has received death threats.
“I feel very disappointed, very sad,” he says. “Now it is getting worse than before in terms of freedom of press and freedom of speech … For the state media, the minister [of information] has changed but nothing else has changed.”
In recent weeks, following the deadly violence in Rakhine state attributed to Rohingya Muslims that prompted a sweeping army crackdown on the persecuted minority, the government has used state media to flatly deny allegations of abuses by the security forces. Soldiers have been accused of killing and raping Rohingya, thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh.
A report released this week by a government-led commission sent to investigate the conflict was slammed by human rights groups as a “whitewash”. “The government is clearly trying to restrict the information coming out of northern Rakhine State and continue to issue denials about the very serious human rights violations taking place there,” says Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher.
“They dismiss reports of rights abuses as ‘fake news’ and allegations of sexual violence as ‘fake rape’, yet at the same time are not allowing independent journalists full and unfettered access to the area,” she says. “Those who do report on the situation face threats and intimidation which has had a chilling effect on press freedom and has led some media workers to self-censor.”
Suu Kyi spokesperson Zaw Htay could not immediately be reached for comment. Maung Saungkha suggests the new government has more conviction in its own actions than in the principle of free speech. “If we look at the Phyo Min Thein case they think themselves whatever they do is right – that is a problem,” he says. “In this case, they don’t think about freedom of speech for the media. They think what they are doing is right.”
While a parliamentary commission in November recommended removing Article 66D, during a recent debate the lower house speaker appeared to defend the clause. “There are so many [people] insulting Aung San Suu Kyi on social media, that’s why they don’t want to reform the law,” he says. “So we can look at the number of NLD CEC [Central Executive Committee] members of NLD that used that law … MPs and speakers don’t dare open up the way to reform.”
He fears his campaign will end in disappointment. “I dreamed we’re going to do a campaign and after the campaign, we can push the parliament to reform the law,” he says. Now, it is nothing.” He likens the desire for free speech in his country to the thirst for water after a long drought. The quantity poured out since the new government took power would not make up even a litre, he says with a wry smile, tapping an empty bottle on the table of a café. “Just one cup.”
Source: The Guardian