The right to freedom of expression in Myanmar has been declining during the term of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government, especially when it comes to criticism against the Myanmar military and the government. Over the past few days a prominent filmmaker and human rights activist, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, was sentenced to one year in prison for criticizing the Myanmar military in his Facebook posts. Meanwhile in Kachin State, a military commander has filed a lawsuit against a Kachin ethnic religious leader for his comments made to the President of the United States about human rights violations committed by the military and supporting US sanctions against top military leaders. Similarly, the NLD government in Karenni State has charged six Karenni youth for calling the State Minister a traitor over his attempt to place General Aung San’s statue in Loikaw against the people’s will.
The Myanmar military has been known for its decades-long oppression against the civilians and violations of the human rights of Myanmar people, especially ethnic and religious minorities. However, when the NLD government won the election in 2015 and started their term in government, people were hoping for genuine change and a democratic transition as promised during their campaign. Though the first term of the NLD government is slowly coming to an end, improved protection of the right to freedom of expression, alongside the right to freedom of assembly, is yet to be seen. On the contrary, the military and government have increasingly become intolerant of any criticism against them. In the case of the filmmaker, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who has been charged under 505(a) of the Penal Code for his Facebook posts criticizing the military, he should never have been charged if Myanmar protects the people’s right to freedom of expression. In addition he is suffering from liver cancer and he has not received any proper treatment during his detention in prison according to his lawyer Robert San Aung. Despite his concerning health condition, on 28 August, after spending about five months in Insein Prison during trial, the court sentenced him to one year in prison with hard labor. After hearing the judge’s decision, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi said he did not regret criticizing the military and previously stated that he has been criticizing the military for a long time and will continue to say that “the military should leave politics and that the 2008 Constitution should be amended.”
In the same week, Lieutenant Colonel, Than Htike, the Myanmar military’s Northern Commander based in Kachin State, filed a lawsuit against the President of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), Reverend Hkalam Samson, over his statement to the President of the United States. During his meeting with the President, the Reverend discussed the ongoing oppression and persecution of Christians by the Myanmar military, while showing his support for newly imposed sanctions against the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and three other senior leaders of the Myanmar military. In response to this, civil society organizations such as the Legal Aid Network said the statement by the Reverend “does not constitute any crime but it was just the practice of his freedom of expression,” while the World Kachin Congress also came out in support of the Reverend’s testimony condemning the charges, stating that it was “completely truthful and is endorsed by Kachins worldwide”.
As terrible as the response by the Myanmar military has been, the Myanmar government has been handling criticism in a similar practice by using outdated and oppressive laws as a tool to tackle criticism against them. On 26 August, 2019, six Karenni youths were charged under Article 8(d) of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (LPPSC) for calling the Karenni State Chief Minister a traitor over his support of a controversial statue of General Aung San. The statue was erected in a park in the state’s capital, Loikaw, amid much protest from Karenni locals who believe the statue is a symbol of the dominant role of Bamar majority, neglecting the leaders and the history of Karenni people.
In their mid-year report, a freedom of expression activist organization, Athan, said the law (LPPSC), which was enacted in March 2017, is often used to silence freedom of expression by the authorities. The report found that there have been 28 cases charged under this law in the first six months of 2019 and the largest group facing such charges are the ordinary citizens.
In the aftermath of the sentencing of filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom have expressed their concerns regarding the decline of freedom of expression in Myanmar. While the NLD government continues to profess that they are advancing the country towards democracy, their lack of willingness to respect basic human rights such as freedom of expression, shows that their words are nothing more than just a wish to build a house in the air. In order to demonstrate their commitment to building a democratic country, the government must work to amend or repeal all repressive laws that continue to restrict the rights and freedoms of Myanmar people, particularly those who continue to be marginalized and disenfranchized. As the 2020 election approaches, it is time for the NLD government to end the oppression of expression and stand in solidarity with the people, and work to bring an end to the decades-long impunity of the military.
 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.
By Article 19
By Article 19
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Environmental Working Group
By Legal Aid Network
By PEN America
By World Kachin Congress
By Fortify Rights
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.”