What you need to know
'Free prisoners and dismantle the legal infrastructure of repression.' Removing authoritarian controls on freedom of speech is among the plethora of challenges facing Myanmar’s new leader.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is pushing for a swathe of changes to laws that have been used to jail journalists and activists in newly democratic Myanmar.
In a new report, the organization details numerous instances in which journalists and others have been jailed and silenced in Myanmar in recent years, including several cases that have taken place since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took power.
“Arrests and prosecutions for participation in peaceful assemblies have continued under the new administration,” HRW says.
It notes that on May 15, the leaders of an interfaith ‘peace walk’ in downtown Rangoon (Yangon) were arrested and charged, as was a solo protester who was marching from Rangoon to the site of the controversial Letpadaung mine on May 23.
Also in May, Nay Myo Wai, an anti-Muslim activist, was charged for a Facebook post that allegedly defamed Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, and the commander-in-chief of the military. His case is pending.
HRW says the former administration – which was dominated by former members of Burma’s longstanding military junta – repressed critics via broad and vaguely worded laws, some dating back to British colonial era.
Soon after NLD took control of Myanmar earlier this year, its courts freed 69 jailed students and the government has promised to work for the release of the political prisoners arrested under former President Thein Sein – in his five years in power, Thein Sein also ordered several large-scale releases of political prisoners.
HRW is calling on the Aung San Suu Kyi administration to “immediately and unconditionally release any individuals detained, facing charges, or imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly who have not already been released in prisoner amnesties.”
It wants the new government to dismantle “the inherited legal infrastructure of repression” and it says police should “facilitate peaceful assemblies, not hinder them.”
HRW says that under Thein Sein, despite the relaxation of censorship laws, the release of political prisoners and new laws relating to protests and news media, the new legal environment turned out to be a “double-edged sword.”
The laws were subsequently “used to arrest and prosecute those who spoke out in ways the government or the military found objectionable.”
“The repeal or amendment of abusive laws that have been used to arrest, harass, and imprison citizens who spoke out or protested about matters of public interest would send a strong signal that genuine change has come to Burma,” HRW says in the report, also noting that the laws remain in violation of the internationally protected rights to expression and peaceful assembly.
The report quotes a Yangon attorney, Pang Long, as saying in January, “While the country is more open than before, the people’s rights are being neglected. They can arrest you at any time under these laws. There is no guarantee.”
The New York-based organization’s report details the crackdown on freedom of speech under Thein Sein.
Among the cases, is Htin Lin Oo, a writer and former NLD information officer, who was jailed for more than a year before being released in April 2016 after an amnesty was ordered for 83 prisoners by the new government.
Several cases involve media organizations and groups of journalists.
Five members of Eleven Media were charged with defamation in October 2014, after the Eleven Weekly Journal published an article alleging that the Ministry of Information had paid more than market price for printing presses, HRW says. A year later, 17 staff members of Eleven Daily were charged with contempt of court for publishing an article quoting testimony in the ongoing defamation trial. Fourteen were convicted and fined.
Four journalists and the chief executive of Unity Journal were jailed after running a front page report in November, 2014 about a military facility that had been built on land confiscated from local farmers – and alleging the building was a chemical weapons factory. The government denied the report, and the group was charged for violating the Official Secrets Act, which provides penalties of up to 14 years in prison for anyone who approaches or enters a prohibited place, HRW says.
“Despite testimony that the journalists had photographed the site while researching a story on the land confiscations and that no signs were posted at the time indicating the factory was off limits, all five were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, later reduced on appeal to seven years.”
HRW quotes Wai Phyo, chief editor of Eleven Media Group, as saying, “Before, in terms of freedom of expression, there was direct control. Now, it is indirect threat by criminal charges.”
Aung Sung Suu Ki, who has the title of State Counselor, continues to be criticized for her handling of the country’s Rohingya population – a marginalized Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country.
First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang