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Burma: Fresh fears for freedom of speech under Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration

THE 2015 election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) was a time of hope and celebration in Burma (Myanmar). High expectation abounded that the age of oppression and fear of government-led persecution would be over.

Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic: AP.

But given the dozens of people who have been charged or jailed under the new administration for supposed online defamation of the regime, it appears those expectations may have been misplaced.

At least thirty eight people have been charged under the controversial Article 66D of the Telecommunications Law in the 10 months since Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory.

Despite the law coming in to force under the previous military-backed administration, it was only implemented seven times between 2013 and 2015.

The drastic increase seen under the NLD administration, whose members include a significant number of former political prisoners, is of particular concern to human rights groups.

They see the abuse of the law and the persistent repression of criticism as a sign that conditions for free speech in the democratic nation have continued to deteriorate.

“The capacity of people to freely impart and receive information, including through free political discourse, is critical for a functioning democracy,” Daniel Aguirre, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists in Myanmar, told the Myanmar Times.

He added that in order to ensure the law serves the interests of the people and does not pose a threat to free speech, Parliament must “abolish or extensively amend its criminal defamation laws”.

The law is being used to target a wide-range social commentators from public officials to social media satirists, activists and journalists. Even members of the NLD themselves are not beyond its reaches.

One of the more high profile ongoing cases is that of Myo Yan Naung Thein, secretary of the ruling party’s central research committee, who is currently on trial for criminal defamation.

Thein is accused of insulting the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A point, his wife claims “is just criticising, with facts” and should not be seen as a defamation issue but as mere freedom of speech.

This is one of the more recent in a long list of convictions.

U Maung Maung Tun, a reporter in the state capital, was arrested in December for criticising a state-media reporter.

In a letter to the editor in a local journal, Maung Tun took aim at U Zaw Min Aung for lying. Subsequent social media posts reiterated his point declaring, “He lied and lied, who dares lie on the pages of a newspaper?”

Another includes Ma Chaw Sandi Htun who was sentenced to six months in prison under Article 66D for posting a satirical photo on Facebook of a military officer wearing women’s clothing.

Activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee also served a six month sentence for sharing a defamatory post about Myanmar’s military chief.

Abuse of the law has gone so far as to include a member of the ruling party pressing charges against two villagers for insulting Suu Kyi during a night of drinking.

A supporter of Burma’s National League for Democracy party displays her mobile phone with a picture of Suu Kyi as they gather to celebrate unofficial election results outside the NLD headquarters in Yangon. Pic: AP.

While the cases vary in their nature, the majority of them involve the use of social media to spread information.

Over the last few years, Myanmar has experienced a connectivity revolution. Tens of millions of people now have access to the World Wide Web; a luxury that was previously reserved for a minority.

However, the recent influx of arrests on defamation charges highlights how vulnerable people in Myanmar are when communicating and sharing information online. And given the risks involved, the fear of speaking out seems to be spreading.

Aguirre says that through his work he has “met with members of civil society reluctant to speak out on legitimate concerns for fear of landing in jail.”

The fear is that the current high prosecution rates on defamation charges will stifle blossoming freedom of expression for good.

“The penchant to turn to criminal defamation laws to punish free expression, by both by the military government and the current administration, chills the exercise of free expression of opinion and stifles the exchange of information,” Vani Sathisan, an independent legal expert who spent three years working in Myanmar, said.

“This right to freedom of expression protects every form of expression, including electronic and internet-based,” she said.

Despite a parliamentary commission in November recommending the removal of Article 66D, the law remains and is unlikely to change anytime soon with several public officials speaking out in defence of the clause.

The rise in convictions under Article 66D comes at a time when the government is also attempting to curtail the freedom of the press by restricting information coming out of the northern Rakhine state following violent clashes between the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and police.

The government continues to deny any wrongdoing in the region and yet will not allow independent journalists access to the area.

“Those who do report on the situation face threats and intimidation” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher.

With both Article 66D being used to its full force and ongoing infringement on freedom of press, concerns abound that little has changed in Myanmar since the new administration took over.

With fresh fears that freedom of expression may once again be under threat in the newly democratised nation, it appears the high aspirations that once existed for the new government to defend civil liberties may not become reality.

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