Freedom of Expression is Not A Crime
As the term of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government is coming to an end and the time for a new election is fast approaching, it is disturbing to watch how normal it has become for the students, journalists, youth and ethnic activists and human rights defenders to be charged, arrested and imprisoned simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. This is clearly demonstrated by the most recent cases of charges and arrests: students who participated in a protest against the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States have been charged; members of the Peacock Generation – a student and youth satirical Thangyat troupe – were charged and sentenced for their satirical performance pointing to the military’s human rights violations; and case of military’s lawsuits against human rights lawyer U Kyi Myint, poet U Saw Wai and the former Myanmar military captain Nay Myo Zin for their remarks on the country’s constitutional amendment process and the role of the military just to name a few. According to the latest number from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the number of political prisoners have risen to 647 in January 2020, with 73 of them serving prison sentences and 574 still awaiting trial. However, it is important to note that this number does not reflect those ethnic civilians and youth who have been arrested and charged under unlawful association act for suspicion of having connections to ethnic armed organizations such as the Arakan Army (AA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
In Myanmar, it is almost predictable when there is a protest or a rally that is critical of the military or government, there will most likely be an arrest and imprisonment following the protest. Most recently, students were arrested and charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for their participation in the protest demanding the restoration of internet access in Rakhine and Chin States. On 23 February 2020, around 100 students came together in Yangon and organized a protest against the government’s shutdown of internet access in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin states, where civilian lives are threatened everyday due to the intense fighting between the AA and the Myanmar military. The protest was first held in Rakhine State on 22 February, joined by over 100 Arakanese youth activists. Instead of listening to the voices of the people on the ground for their concerns of security for the civilians living in the conflict affected areas, the government has been bent on silencing the voices of those who dare to speak out.
It is clear that those who do speak out against the military and the government must risk arrest and imprisonment. In April and May 2019, seven members of the Peacock Generation – a satirical Thangyat troupe – were arrested and have been facing charges in several townships in Yangon as well as in Ayeyarwaddy for their satirical thangyat performance. Local and international organizations have continuously called for these charges to be dropped. Three members were recently sentenced to six months in prison with “online defamation”. They have already been sentenced to a total of two years and six months under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code and Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act.
Similarly, the Myanmar military filed a defamation lawsuit against two prominent political activists, the formidable lawyer U Kyi Myint and poet U Saw Wai, and have also filed a case against a former Myanmar military captain Nay Myo Zin for remarks they made last April regarding charter amendment. Prominent lawyer U Kyi Myint and poet U Saw Wai were granted bail on 3 February 2020 due to their age and poor health condition.
These three should never have been arrested nor charged in the first place for making remarks on the process of the charter amendment. This extends to the Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who was recently released from prison on 21 February after completing his prison term for criticizing the military on his Facebook page. He was sentenced to one year in prison last August under Section 505 (a) of the Criminal Code, despite his poor health. Restricting freedom of expression like this indicates that the Myanmar government, who claims to be democratic, and the Myanmar military will not tolerate any criticism against them, and consider people exercising their right to freedom of expression is a crime.
The Myanmar government and the military may have used all their power to silence activists and human rights defenders from critically speaking out against the deeply militarized, corrupted and wracked political system. However, the government should know well by now that freedom of expression is an essential pillar in order for democracy to work well, and for that people should be able to exercise this right along with the rights to freedom of assembly and association. Meanwhile, the government should also be well aware that they can no longer go on committing human rights abuses and crimes, while on the other hand, trying to deny and convince the rest of the world to turn a blind eye to their criminal activities.
If the Myanmar government and its military continue to see any criticism against them as a threat to their power and attempt to silence anyone pointing out their criminal acts and wrong doings, their misdeeds will only bring Myanmar further down the hill from the path of already-backsliding transition to democracy and will never achieve genuine peace and sustainable development. It is time for the Myanmar government to listen to and collaborate with the people, but not suppress their voices. For this, the government must cease targeting lawyers, journalists, students and youth activists and human rights defenders, and stop arresting and imprisoning them. In addition, the government must ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and carry out its obligations under international law, amend or abolish all repressive laws, and amend the military drafted 2008 Constitution. Most importantly, the Myanmar government must ensure, without further delay, the withdrawal of Myanmar military from politics and businesses and end its military operations against non-Bamar ethnic nationalities. After all, the Myanmar military pulling out of both politics and businesses is the essential precondition in order for Myanmar to achieve sound and durable solution towards achieving a genuine peace, national reconciliation and development in Myanmar.
 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 Amnesty International
By Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Karen Women’s Organization
By Karen Grassroots Women’s Network
By Karen Human Rights Group
By Karen Human Rights Group
By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
By PEN America
By Transnational Institute (TNI)
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.”