Burmese civil society fights back against restrictions on freedom of expression

At the time of writing, Myanmar remains on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watch List of countries where there is an immediate and developing threat to civic space. 

Expression

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, continuing repression of freedom of speech presents a serious obstacle to the work of independent civil society groups in Myanmar. This update details key flashpoints that exemplify Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to dismantle a number of restrictive, military-era laws on freedom of expression. 

These laws include sections of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which has been used repeatedly to target outspoken critics of the government. The expansive provisions within the law enable authorities in Myanmar to arrest, prosecute and imprison activists for up to three years under the vaguely-worded offence of: 

“Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network”.

Since Suu Kyi's party assumed power last year, 54 people have been prosecuted and eight imprisoned under this law on charges of dissension on social media. In response to this crackdown on free expression, civil society groups in Myanmar have launched a campaign calling for the law to be revoked. On 6th June 2017, a group of more than 100 journalists gathered in Rangoon, demanding that lawsuits made under this law be withdrawn.

Recent use of Telecommunication laws to silence activists

  • On 26th May 2017, Ma Sandi Myint Aung was sentenced to six months in prison on defamation charges after sharing a post on Facebook about Suu Kyi. Ma Sandi Myint Aung was first arrested on 29th November 2016, after authorities received a complaint about the social media posts.
  • On 2nd June 2017, two journalists from the The Voice Daily newspaper were detained and charged under the Telecommunication Law's defamation clause. Chief editor Ko Kyaw Min Swe and columnist Ko Kyaw Za Naing were arrested after writing an article about Myanmar’s peace process, entitled "Kyi Htaung Su Thitsar", meaning "Oath Made in a Nation of Bullets". The article, published on 27th March 2017, was intended to parody a propaganda film released by authorities on Armed Forces Day. In response to their arrest, 100 journalists protested outside Ko Kyaw Min Swe and Ko Kyaw Za Naing's court hearing on 8th June 2017. Wearing white bands on their arms to symbolise solidarity with their colleagues, the protesters also held banners decrying the ongoing prosecution of journalists. Ko Kyaw Za Naing was absolved of these charges on 16th June 2017, but Ko Kyaw Min Swe remains in detention.
  • On 4th June 2017, U Tun Tun Oo, leader of the Human Rights Activists Association, was arrested and charged under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after live-streaming a play entitled “We Want No War”. The play, originally performed in January, was considered as defaming the military, as it portrayed security forces clashing with ethnic armed groups. The play was staged by nine high school and undergraduate students. Two of the students, Ko Aung Khant Zaw and Ko Myat Thu Htet, who organised the play have been charged with defamation and are currently facing trial.

In response to the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in Myanmar, the Committee for the Projection of Journalists (CPJ) in Myanmar has been at the forefront of civil society's fight back. In addition to playing a central role in coordinating protests, CPJ has also been key in petitioning the government to repeal the restrictive law. On 9th June 2017, a government representative vowed that authorities would take steps to repeal the draconian legislation in the future. In response, CPJ commented on the government's pledge, stating: 

"We welcome this commitment to eliminate the most punitive provisions of section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and we encourage the government and legislators to make the change as soon as possible...No journalist should go to jail for doing their job in Myanmar".

While the move has been broadly welcomed by civil society, questions remain over how quickly the law will be abolished. Also, given the government's track record of using the legal system to silence journalists, many question whether those already incarcerated under the legislation will be released. 

A view from Burmese civil society

Given the number of activists detained for expressing dissent, the CIVICUS Monitor recently spoke to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). AAPP is a Burmese human rights organisation for current and former political prisoners founded in 2000 by former political prisoners, Ko Tate Naing and Ko Bo Kyi. Political prisoners represent the struggle for democracy, human rights, equality and freedom for the people of *Burma, and their continued imprisonment represents a stumbling block to the country's democratic development.

AAPP works in three main areas: researching and documenting the human rights situation in Burma; facilitating a mental health assistance program for former political prisoners and family members; and providing training on human rights and transitional justice to former political prisoners, members of political parties, activists and other stakeholders in the human rights arena.

1. How would you describe the current situation for civil society in Myanmar? Have there been any recent restrictions to civic space?

There are a lot of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Burma, but unfortunately, many of them struggle with operations because of knowledge gaps and a lack of funding. In particular, knowledge gaps about the role and purpose of civil society present a challenge to the operation of many CSOs in Burma.

Furthermore, the government does not recognise or pay attention to the role of civil society in Burma, which is essential in the democratic process and essential in order for the government to gain a wider, bottom-up understanding of the needs of the nation.

There are restrictions to civic space – the use of Sections 18 and 19 of the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Act which prevents people from peacefully assembling without prior permission (which oftentimes is given but then revoked). Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications [Law] is currently restricting people from freely expressing themselves online.

2.How has civil society in Myanmar responded to increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, particularly the rising number of arrests for defamation under the Telecommunications Law?

Domestic CSOs have engaged in lobbying and advocacy efforts, documentation of those arrested, charged, on trial, and sentenced.

There are current ongoing campaigns by journalists campaigning for freedom of expression, and individuals, [for example], Poet Maung Saung Kha, who are campaigning for the removal of and or amendment to Section 66(d).

3.What role could international civil society play in supporting and standing in solidarity with civil society in Myanmar as it faces these increasing restrictions on civic space and freedom of expression?

The international community can support and stand in solidarity in many ways. For example, it could:

  • Provide technical support – i.e. making suggestions to domestic CSOs on how to move forward and techniques they can use to lobby;
  • Provide financial support to domestic CSOs working on these issues;
  • Document and report on 66(d) cases and restrictions on freedom of expression;
  • Lobby their own governments to put pressure on the Burma Government to make amendments to the Telecommunications Law; and
  • Create awareness campaigns on the situation / call to action campaigns i.e. petition calling for the amendment of the Law. 

*Though the country's name was changed to Myanmar in 1989, when the military junta came to power, many civil society groups still refer to the country as Burma. 

Climate of fear for human rights defenders

In addition to legal threats, activists also face harassment, intimidation and physical violence for criticism of or opposition to the authorities. Several recent examples highlight individuals who faced reprisals for exercising their right to freedom of expression: 

  • On 26th May 2017, Maw Oo Myar, a politics and women’s rights reporter at the Kantarawaddy Times was abducted in Kayah state. Maw Oo Myar was verbally threatened and forced into a car by two men while driving her motorbike along a road in Loikaw. The car was later discovered further down the road, having crashed, along with the unconscious bodies of Maw Oo Myar and the two men. Maw Oo Myar has regained consciousness but remains unable to speak or move due to her condition. While suspects have been identified, civil society groups have urged the authorities to swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice. 
  • U Robert Sann Aung, a prominent human rights lawyer and former political prisoner, has received death threats since lawyer Ko Ni’s assassination in January 2017. In a statement to Frontier Myanmar, U Robert Sann Aung described receiving threats via phone calls, text messages and the messaging app Viber, some saying "you are next". The lawyer has also reported being followed since December 2016.
  • Nay Min Aung (also known as Min Min), a journalist working in Rakhine province, has also received death threats after writing an article in early April 2017 that described the operations of an armed ethnic group in Rakhine province.