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Myanmar and Its Vanishing Freedom of Expression: The Situation of Freedom of Expression After Two Years of the Military Coup

November 15th, 2023  •  Author:   Athan - Freedom of Expression Activist Organization  •  8 minute read
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This section of the report delves into the participants’ understandings of freedom of expression, as conveyed during the interviews, and their insights into why it is an essential element in human societies. Preliminarily, these understandings can be categorized into three main perspectives.

The first perspective views freedom of expression as a fundamental human need. The second perspective regards freedom of expression not merely as a human need but as a human right that society must safeguard and promote. The third perspective considers freedom of speech as an invaluable political asset. This standpoint envisions establishing a new democratic federal state following the eradication of military dictatorship in Myanmar, where freedom of expression is viewed as a crucial democratic value essential for the flourishing of a democratic society.

The participants emphasized that freedom of expression is a basic human need as it is a part of our nature to have opinions. They shared that having personal beliefs and being able to express these opinions through various means are essential for our growth as human beings. Being able to share one’s feelings, besides one’s views, is also characteristic of freedom of expression. Even when others strongly disagree with these opinions and feelings, expressing them, regardless of their correctness, remains a core element of freedom of expression.

One participant offered their definition of freedom of expression, stating that everyone can form their thoughts and share their opinions on any subject. “Whether you’re talking, writing it down, or even performing it, or however we’re skilled at expressing, whether through words, an artwork, or an action, I guess all of these qualify as freedom of expression,”6 said a male student leader from the Yadanabon University Students’ Union shared his thoughts as a participant in the interviews.

In addition to recognizing freedom of expression as a human need, participants emphasized that it should be exercised within certain boundaries. They clarified that these boundaries include refraining from engaging in hate speech or undermining the dignity of others based on personal feelings. They also stressed the importance of self-assessment to ensure one’s opinions are appropriate.

Regarding the right to freedom of expression, one participant explained: “A human being thinks and shares their ideas and feelings. Anyone must possess that freedom. But there is a bound to that freedom. Our speech must not cause injury to others. As for our feelings, we’re free, of course”7. A female participant serving as the Executive Director of the Nyan Lin Thit research group cautioned against violating the rights of others when exercising freedom of speech. She further emphasized the importance of ensuring that exercising free speech does not hinder the
access to and dissemination of factual information.

Most participants engaged in an extensive discussion of freedom of expression within the context of human rights. The central theme of this discourse is that freedom of expression is not merely a basic human need inherent in every individual but also a requirement that the state must acknowledge and guarantee as a fundamental human right through the enactment of laws and regulations. Throughout the discussion, many participants frequently referenced an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to emphasize that freedom of speech is an intrinsic human right for individuals to lead dignified lives.

“Each of us has inherent human rights. We have eyes, ears, and mouths, so we have the right to see, hear, and speak. As these are all inherent human rights, when it comes to freedom of expression, I consider it as an inherent human right.”

A female participant articulated her view on freedom of expression:

Similarly, a male participant working at a civil society organization from the Yangon Region expressed that freedom of expression is the most fundamental human right among all human rights and can manifest in various forms. He explained the concept further by sharing: “Whether through poetry, video creation, or article writing, all of these constitute forms of freedom of expression, in my understanding.”9 Most participants underscored the critical need to safeguard freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, especially in the oppressive regime of the military in Myanmar.

Most participants expressed their opinion on freedom of expression as a prerequisite to political value to be able to build a successful federal democratic society. Most of them believed that the norm for freedom of expression was a fundamental political value and an essential standard for establishing a democratic federal society. According to those interviewed, freedom of expression is seen as a required political standard for improving the government and society as a whole, as it allows for constructive criticism and feedback across various sectors, including political, economic, and educational structures within the state. The necessary role of freedom of speech in democratic societies was stressed, particularly its theoretical need for free expression, debate, and criticism to facilitate the election of a competent democratic government.

In this regard, a male participant from Rakhine State illustrated the importance of freedom of expression in the context of choosing political representatives in the following way, “When we exercise our freedom of expression and vote for someone because we genuinely support them, it reflects our trust and confidence in that individual. It’s a means of expressing our will and making a choice.

“Conversely, if we lack this choice and a high-ranking political leader assumes power
without our trust, it leads to doubts and suspicions that society won’t progress; this is why
freedom of expression is so important”

In the discourse surrounding the election of political leaders who truly represent the people, a journalist participating in the interviews highlighted the critical role of freedom of speech in building a thriving democratic society. He stressed the importance of disseminating accurate information to ensure that people have access to the correct information and can effectively exercise their freedom of speech. He also noted the absence of press freedom in Myanmar over successive periods, saying, “As a journalist, I’m constantly thinking and writing. In Myanmar, press freedom has been absent for a long time, even in previous administrations. We were often threatened not to report certain issues, or else we’d face legal consequences. This effectively means we have had no press freedom at all.

Similarly, a female student leader from Dagon University Students’ Union, who participated in the interviews, underscored the significance of freedom of expression in building a robust democratic society. She remarked, “Looking back, the foremost requirement to build a democratic society in Myanmar is freedom of expression. Myanmar’s people have been deprived of this fundamental right for years. Therefore, the progress of our nation hinges on the will of the people and their ability to express it. For example, if they aspire to achieve democracy, they must be free to voice their aspirations and select their desired government.”1

The discussion centered on how the free expression of opinions while rebuilding the nation allows for the sharing and reconciling of diverse viewpoints, ideas, and experiences. This, in turn, paves the way for finding solutions to the complex challenges that surround us from all angles. One of the participants in this discussion was a Captain who defected from the military to join the Civil Disobedient Movement (CDM), and he is actively supporting its growth. He shared his experiences of being unable to express his opinions freely while serving within the military junta and how freedom of expression was repressed within the military.

Moreover, when discussing the importance of freedom of expression, he explained that it plays a highly significant role: We are individuals from diverse sectors and regions with distinct experiences. To synthesize all of these perspectives for the betterment of the state, everyone must be able to express their viewpoints and share their experiences. Only through this process can we reconcile our differences.

He expressed his belief that freedom of expression enables different opinions to be shared, which can be incorporated into making decisions and conclusions. He emphasized this point further by stating that a better nation can be built as people become better skilled at considering freely expressed opinions. He firmly believes that freedom of expression allows the sharing and incorporation of diverse opinions in making decisions or drawing conclusions, and as people become more adept at considering opinions expressed freely.

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