Freedom to Criticize

“Listening to the people’s voices speaking out against oppression is a core duty of a democratically-elected government.”

Two leaders of recent anti-war protests in Yangon and Myitkyina

As Myanmar[1] faces many challenges to its development as a federal, democratic system, voicing of public opinion and open discussion of important issues are more important than ever. As two leaders of recent anti-war protests in Yangon and Myitkyina wrote in a recent op-ed, “[l]istening to the people’s voices speaking out against oppression is a core duty of a democratically-elected government.” However, instead of promoting open discussion and protecting the right to freedom of expression and assembly, which are key pillars of democracy, the Myanmar Government and military have created an environment of fear and self-censorship, charging and imprisoning those who exercise their right to speak out.

Repressive laws continue to be used to prohibit speech that criticizes the military or the government. One such law is Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes making or circulating statements that may cause fear or alarm that may induce someone to commit an offense against the State or against public tranquility. Another is Article 505(c) that relates to statements likely to incite a community to commit offenses against another community. The use of these laws is not limited to cases of actual incitement to violence, but against peaceful protesters and human rights defenders who oppose or express disagreement with military or government actions. For instance, Article 505(b) and (c) were used against eleven peaceful protesters in Karenni State for statements made during a protest against a planned statue of General Aung San, a late Burman leader of the independence movement. Three peaceful protesters from Kachin State are also facing trial under the related Article 500, criminal defamation, for statements at a press conference about the military’s abuses against internally-displaced persons (IDPs).

The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL) is another tool that is used in a biased manner against people who criticize the Myanmar Government and military, particularly on sensitive topics. A report launched on 12 July in Yangon by Progressive Voice pointed out that requirements for protest organizers to submit details about the slogans they will use can be used by police and local authorities to restrict peaceful assemblies based on the content of such slogans. Overly strict provisions allow local authorities to choose which protests to crackdown on or which organizers to charge.

Peaceful protests in Yangon, Myitkyina and elsewhere in April and May 2018 calling for the rescue of trapped IDPs, provision of humanitarian aid and an end to the civil war resulted in 47 organizers and participants being charged with the PAPPL, due in part to a Yangon-wide ban on assemblies, while ultra-nationalist assemblies in Yangon in support of the military were not obstructed and organizers were not charged. Sixteen activists in Karenni State have also been charged under the PAPPL.

The lack of judicial independence and fair trial guarantees has been a problem in Myanmar since previous military regimes.

In addition to repressive laws, the lack of an independent, effective judicial system means that activists charged under these laws are unlikely to get a fair trial. This can be seen most starkly in the recent decision by a Yangon court to proceed to trial in the case of the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, for alleged violation of the State Secrets Act despite police testimony that they had been set up, another police witness admitting to burning his notes from the day of the arrest, and other prosecution witnesses that contradicted each other and the prosecution’s argument. The decision to move forward to trial on this evidence makes it clear that the courts are not independent, and that once journalists or activists have been charged with certain laws they have little chance of a fair trial. The lack of judicial independence and fair trial guarantees has been a problem in Myanmar since previous military regimes.

Prominent critics of the Government have also faced charges under the Telecommunications Law and face other serious charges including sedition. Arrestees are not only human rights defenders, but a few nationalists and military supporters have faced criminal charges for speech criticizing the NLD-led Government.

A key component of democracy is respect for freedom of speech, even for unpopular opinions, and the settlement of disagreements through debate in the public sphere, not by trying to silence those who disagree.

All of these arrests and charges of peaceful protesters, human rights defenders and journalists have created an atmosphere of self-censorship and reluctance to criticize Government and military policy and actions. Such reluctance is damaging to the development of a democratic system in Myanmar, given the need for a wide range of opinions and perspectives to be taken into account. A key component of democracy is respect for freedom of speech, even for unpopular opinions, and the settlement of disagreements through debate in the public sphere, not by trying to silence those who disagree. Myanmar has many challenges at present, but problems will not be solved by refusing to discuss them and punishing those who disagree with or point out weaknesses and faults of the Government and military.

In order to ensure that the transition to democracy gets on the right track, the Myanmar Government must respect people’s rights to freedom of speech and assembly by amending repressive laws such as Articles 505(b) and (c) of the Penal Code, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, the Telecommunications Law and others, and drop all charges against peaceful protesters and others who have been charged for what should be protected speech, and release all those already convicted for their expression of free speech. The Government must also work to promote respect for and protect freedom of speech and assembly, even for unpopular opinions and criticism of the Government and military, and engage in consultations and discussions with civil society about amending these policies and laws in line with international standards.
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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Global Environment Facility Conservation Project in Myanmar Violates Indigenous Rights

By Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari

ျမန္မာႏိုင္ငံရွိ GEF ၏ ထိန္းသိမ္းေရးစီမံကိန္းသည္ ဌာေနတိုင္းရင္းသားမ်ား၏ အခြင့္အေရးကိုခ်ိဳးေဖာက္ေနျခင္း

By Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari

Strengthen Targeted Sanctions on Burma: 46 Groups Call Legislation ‘Imperative’ to Address Atrocities

By Human Rights Watch

Myanmar Authorities Must Drop All Charges Against Peaceful Protesters and Amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law

By Progressive Voice

ျမန္မာအာဏာပိုင္မ်ားမွ ၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းစြာဆႏၵျပသူမ်ားအေပၚ စြဲခ်က္အားလံုး ႐ုပ္သိမ္းကာ ၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းစြာစုေဝးျခင္းႏွင့္ ၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းစြာစီတန္းလွည့္လည္ျခင္းဆိုင္ရာဥပေဒကို ျပင္ဆင္ေပးရမည္

By Progressive Voice

reports

Reports

Help for the Kachin Displaced by Burma Army Attacks

By Free Burma Rangers

Development or Destruction? The Human Rights Impacts of Hydropower Development on Villagers in Southeast Myanmar

By Karen Human Rights Group and Karen Rivers Watch

ျပည္သူလူထု လိုလားခ်က္ကို သိသင့္ၿပီ – လြတ္လပ္စြာစီတန္းလွည့္လည္ခြင့္ႏွင့္ ျမန္မာႏုိင္ငံ လူငယ္မ်ား၏ ၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းေရး လႈပ္ရွားမႈ

By Progressive Voice

Time to Hear Our Voices: Freedom of Assembly and the Youth Peace Movement in Myanmar

By Progressive Voice


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.

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