Myanmar: Drop All Charges against Maung Saungkha and End Internet Blackout

PEN International is highly concerned over the charges brought against prominent poet and activist Maung Saungkha and calls on Myanmar authorities to drop all charges immediately in advance of the court’s verdict on 4 September 2020.

Charged by Myanmar authorities under the Law relating to the Right of Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession, which imposes severe restrictions on peaceful assembly, Maung is now facing charges of up to three months in jail in response to his displaying of a banner stating, “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine and killing people?” Maung has repeatedly called on Myanmar authorities to end the ongoing internet shutdown imposed on townships within Rakhine and Chin states in western Myanmar, which was enacted in the wake of widespread reports of systemic human rights abuses against the territory’s Rohingya population. The shutdown has had a profound impact on the safety of those in the affected regions, severely curtailing the ability of conflict-affected communities to engage with the outside world, report food shortages or request medical aid. The COVID-19 pandemic compounds the impact of the internet blackout by denying access to vital public health information necessary to minimise the threat posed by exposure to the virus.

In response to the charges against Maung, Romana Cacchioli, Deputy Director at PEN International, said: “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic presents a significant threat to public health in Myanmar, the authorities’ ongoing persecution of peaceful activists such as Maung Saungkha is illustrative of the state’s prioritisation of repression over the well-being of its people. Maung’s campaigning against ongoing internet blackouts in conflict-affected regions highlights how restrictions of freedom of expression can have a detrimental impact on the health and safety of the entire country. We urge the Myanmar authorities to drop all charges against Maung Saungkha and bring an immediate end to the internet shutdown. Doing so will help demonstrate to the world that the government views the health and well-being of the people of Myanmar as its central priority.”

The case marks the latest troubling development for freedom of expression in Myanmar, where authorities have regularly used the country’s legal system to censor public criticism and persecute writers, poets and others who have sought to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression. Earlier this year, PEN International called for the immediate dropping of all charges against renowned poet and board member of PEN Myanmar, Saw Wai, who is facing up to two years in prison in response to his poetry recital during a peaceful rally which called for amendments to Myanmar’s constitution. The latest charges against Maung Saungkha further highlight the need to immediately repeal the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, as was called for in PEN International’s resolution on Myanmar in 2016.

Background on Freedom of expression in Myanmar:

Over four years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government took power, little has been seen in terms of progress in instituting political and legal reforms necessary for the protection of freedom of expression. A wide range of different legislation, including Myanmar’s Penal Code, the Telecommunications Law and the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, have been used by authorities to prosecute individuals who have called for greater freedoms. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, still holds considerable political influence despite the judgement of UN Fact-finding missions that they are responsible for grave human rights abuses. According to media reports, the number of attempts made by members of the military to sue individuals deemed to have defamed the military, including those who have called for constitutional reform or reported on allegations of military misconduct, has risen since April 2019.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: [email protected]

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