Fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly are facing an existential crisis in Myanmar today. Various incidents, including the charges faced by organizers of a Karen Martyrs Day celebration, the National League for Democracy (NLD) Magwe Region Party Chair threatening to pursue criminal defamation charges against those who criticise Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – an example of which occurred near Yangon where a villager has been arrested for criticizing the State Counsellor due to rising commodity prices – and the supporters of jailed former child soldier being charged and arrested under the Penal Code, demonstrate that violations of these fundamental rights are systematic and institutionalized.
In Irrawaddy Region authorities attempted to stop plans to celebrate Karen Martyrs Day, an important day in the calendar of ethnic Karen people who commemorate those who gave their lives fighting for ethnic equality. The local district administrator stated that permission was not granted to hold the activities in this event, and that as the ceremony went ahead regardless, charges against five organizers under Section 21 of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law were filed. Not only are local authorities using overly strict stipulations in the law to violate people’s rights to peaceful assembly, it is indicative of the lack of respect to ethnic people and continuation of policies of Burmanization. As Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, a senior member of the Karen National Union who had previously been a staunch supporter of the Government-led peace process and one of the organizers of the event stated, “I am very disappointed with this. The authorities want us to go behind bars for being a part of this ceremony, and they do not want the Karen people to know more about their history. This is really bad and if they continue oppressing the ethnic people, there will be no peace in the country for sure.” In Karenni State this week, a five-day youth conference led by the Karenni National Youth Organization is being held. The State Government initially denied the request to hold the conference due to the attendance of Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and insisted on changing the agenda to exclude the KNPP’s participation in order for the conference to go ahead. This demonstrates the shrinking space for freedom of assembly and expression of ethnic youth to practice their fundamental rights as well as space for inter- and intra- ethnic dialogues which are essential to build peace and reconciliation.
While the above cases outline how ethnic peoples’ rights to freedom of assembly are being repressed, there are some in the ruling political party who want to police any criticism of the country’s leadership. The Chair of the Magwe Region chapter of the NLD issued a notice stating that those who defame the State Counsellor, Daw Aung Suu Kyi, or the Government, will potentially face legal action taken against them by the NLD. Such top-down and authoritarian orders are hugely damaging to people’s’ right to freedom of expression. Media workers were quick to state this obvious trend and also the irony of which party this decree came from. Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor-in-chief of Khit Thit, and member of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists expressed how, “The party that campaigned and struggled for democracy has restricted democratic rights, and it is like they are acting as dictators now that they have power.”
Also facing charges this week are Lay Lay (aka) San San Oo and Naung Naung, who led the protest against the arrest of the former child soldier, Aung Ko Htwe, at his court appearance on 17 January, 2018 and called for the repeal of 2008 Constitution. They were arrested the following day under Penal Code 505(b). The court decided to add an additional charge under Penal Code 153 of provocation and the trial started on 21 August 2018. This case reveals the vulnerability of those who practice their right of freedom of expression in Myanmar when it comes to criticism against the military or the 2008 Constitution. The sensitivity of the military to such criticism was also highlighted by a complaint addressed to the Speaker of the Parliament from military-appointed MPs – which make up 25% of those in Parliament – regarding the conduct of journalists of “acting without responsibility or accountability” simply by covering the debates and deliberations of lawmakers. While this was rejected, it is clear that the military is staunchly against transparency when it comes to governing the country.
All these cases reflect a further shrinking of democratic space and restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and expression. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, in their latest figures, put the total number of political prisoners as 33, with 53 people awaiting trial inside prison and a further 189 awaiting trial outside prison. This is simply too much and is all the more surprising given the high numbers of former political prisoners in the NLD-led Government. They have the power in Parliament to amend or repeal repressive legislation that is currently being used to severely curtail the Myanmar people’s fundamental rights to peacefully oppose the powerful, whether that is expressing dissatisfaction with the Government or protesting the disgraceful treatment of former child soldier, Aung Ko Htwe. The NLD has a long history of democratic non-violent opposition to undemocratic and repressive rule of the previous military regime. It is not too late for them to show humility, and respect people’s fundamental rights to freely assemble, associate and express their dissent if they are to truly lay the foundations for a new democratic culture.
 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
Statements and Press Releases
By 162 Civil Society Groups
By 17 Civil Society Organisations
By International Federation for Human Rights
By Pa-O Youth Organization
By Religious Freedom Institute
By Religious Freedom Institute
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.”