A Hark Back to the Dark Past – Freedom of Expression Under Attack

Political satire has become the new target of the authorities, marking a grim beginning to Myanmar’s New Year with dire consequences for freedom of expression, which has increasingly been under attack.

Five members of the Peacock Generation who performed a Thangyat  – a satirical poetry slam traditionally performed during Myanmar’s April New Year holiday – were arrested, denied bail and sent to the notorious Insein prison after Lieutenant-Colonel Than Tun Myint of the Myanmar military’s Yangon Regional Command filed cases against the Thangyat troupe members under 505(a) of the repressive Penal Code for their performance criticizing the military. The members will return to court next week to face their second charge under 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for live-streaming their Thangyat performance on Facebook. Another Thangyat trope, Oway, who humorously criticized the government’s failure to amend the military-drafted 2008 Constitution – a Constitution which reserves disproportionate power for the Myanmar military – performed on the streets as venues rejected the troupe. Reportedly, Yangon police had been pressuring venues not to host troupes who refused to submit their lyrics to the censor panel.

The decision by the military to file cases against Peacock Generation is telling of the increasing intolerance of criticism by authorities and a hark back to the past when “Thangyat” was banned under the military junta. Thangyat has long been a vehicle for humorous criticism, but it was banned for 25 years under the former military junta before it was permitted to return as part of New Year festivities in 2013 under the quasi-civilian government. The lyrics, however, remained under censorship until the National League for Democracy (NLD) relaxed its scrutiny in 2016. It has crept back with a vengeance in recent years along with restrictions on freedom of speech and expression.

The current restrictions on Thangyat, which include a ban on commentary attacking officials or questioning national unity or sovereignty are “temporary” according to the NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt who stated to Reuters, “There is freedom of speech, but we can’t allow obstructive ways, can’t speak harmful words about individual people or organizations” [emphasis added]. Meanwhile, in at least two townships, officials with loudspeakers were warning residents that action would be taken against Thangyat performers targeting the government.

In a related crackdown on freedom of expression, authorities detained a prominent filmmaker and a human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi for a series of Facebook posts criticizing the Myanmar military’s role in politics under the 2008 Constitution. Despite having liver cancer, the court denied him bail during the recent hearing. Myanmar moved down in a press freedom index issued annually by Reporters Without Borders this year, particularly due to the seven-year prison sentence that was handed down to Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have recently won the Pulitzer prize and are to receive the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize for their courageous investigative reporting in Rakhine State. In a move that has led to the further loss of faith in Myanmar’s judicial system, the Supreme Court has decided to reject their latest appeal against bogus charges of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era secrets law. According to Athan, an activist organization focused on freedom of expression, 47 journalists have faced trials since the NLD gained power.

As the number of political prisoners grows, hopes that the NLD – led by over 100 former political prisoners – would uphold its pledge to release all political prisoners and end the arrest of activists and human rights defenders has faded. As of April, 362 political activists remain behind bars or continue to face charges according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. While it is customary for the President of Myanmar to mark Myanmar’s New Year with a mass pardon of prisoners, which often includes political prisoners, this year’s mass pardon only included two political prisoners, while over 9,500 prisoners were released. As pointed out by ALTSEAN-Burma, “the number of political activists who are currently behind bars or facing charges has increased since the initial mass pardon in 2016.”

Censoring the Thangyat troupes, jailing those who refuse to comply with an outdated, military junta-era practice of censorship and the ongoing attempts to repress those who work to shed light on the truth only shows the authorities’ total disregard for freedom of expression which harks back to the dark days of military rule. The charges against the Thangyat troupe members, as well as journalists, writers, filmmakers and all political prisoners, must be immediately dropped and the government must work to amend or repeal all repressive laws that continue to restrict peoples’ basic freedoms. At the heart of the repression and the ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech is the power vested in the Myanmar military that is enshrined in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. As pointed out by one of the Thangyat troupe members, further efforts must be made to amend the country’s constitution in order to establish a federal democratic union: “Keep trying, keep trying for ways to amend the constitution within one or two months…With grassroots movements, it can become a federal democratic nation …”

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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

အသံ – လြတ္လပ္စြာထုတ္ေဖာ္ေျပာဆိုခြင့္လႈပ္ရွားမႈအဖြဲ႔ သေဘာထားေၾကညာခ်က္ ထုတ္ျပန္ျခင္း (၁/၂၀၁၉)

By Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization

Opinion Statement on the Presidential Amnesty of the Burmese New Year

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)

DFID Must Increase Aid to Refugees and IDPs

By Burma Campaign UK

Satire is Not a Crime: Drop Charges Against Peaceful Critics

By Human Rights Watch

“Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) Send an open letter to the People Republic of China and State Counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”

By Kachin Democratic Party

ND-Burma’s Bi-annual Report Finds Intensification of Conflict Led to Continued Deterioration of Human Rights in Burma

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

Reuters Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to Receive 2019 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize

By United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

reports

Reports

Promises Turn into A Statue: Unsettled Disputes of General Aung San Statue in A Land with Untold History

By Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization

Human Rights Situation in Burma 2018

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma


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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