Myanmar police on Friday arrested a fifth member of a traditional satirical performance group, charging her with criminal defamation in a complaint filed by the government military, four days after another four members of the same troupe were arrested for mocking the armed forces, a court official and others with knowledge of the matter said.
They also arrested four members of a second performance troupe.
Kay Khine Tun, a nurse at Children’s Hospital in Yangon’s Ahlon township, was taken into custody after a military officer filed a defamation case against the group for its thangyat performances during Thingyan, Myanmar’s Buddhist New Year holiday on April 17.
Thangyat is a Myanmar performance art akin to slam poetry that combines folk verses with traditional musical ensembles or drumbeats and is interspersed with song, dance, and chants. It is performed during festive occasions, particularly before and during Thingyan. The performances usually include humorous criticism of everything from politics to social behavior.
Kay Khine Tun and four of her colleagues from the Peacock Generation (Daungdoh Myoset) Thangyat group have been charged under Article 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which criminalizes the circulation of statements, rumors, or reports with the intent to cause any military officer to disregard or fail in his duties. It carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, a fine, or both.
The chief of Mayangon Police Station chief said Kay Khine Tun was arrested after a warrant had been issued.
She was later released on bail after paying 10 million kyats (U.S. $6,540) provided by two individuals.
Her hearing in Mayangon Township Court is scheduled for April 22.
Proceeding with the case
Lieutenant Colonel Than Tun Myint of the military’s Yangon Regional Command filed the complaint against the troupe members at Yangon’s Mayangon Township Court on the grounds that their performances damaged the image of the armed forces, said court spokeswoman Than Than Win.
“He filed the case as a government employee, so our court has decided to accept it under Article 505(a) based on the complaint,” she said.
“Mayangon Township Court has agreed to proceed with the case,” she added.
The other four troupe members were arrested on Monday for failing to submit their script to censors prior to performing at a Thingyan festival and for livestreaming the satirical performance criticizing the military on Facebook.
They were initially charged with violating Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits use of the telecom network to “defame” people.
But on Thursday, Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the performers would be prosecuted for violating Article 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which criminalizes the circulation of statements and reports with the intent to cause public alarm and induce people to commit an offense against the state.
He said they would be charged under Article 505(b) because they wore military uniforms during their performances.
Later, however, the judge charged them under Article 505(a). The charges under Section 66(d) still stand against all four troupe members as well as against Kay Khine Tun.
The four arrested performers from the second group, the Oway Thangyat troupe, also have been changed under Article 505(a).
Blow to freedom of expression
Some see the arrests as another blow to freedom of expression in the developing democracy, where government and military officials have increasing used vaguely worded laws to silence their critics.
“Freedom of expression should be acknowledged if the nation is democratic or is transitioning to democracy,” said Wai Lu, one of the people who provided bail money for Kay Khine Tun.
“Freedom of speech, and of expression, of youth should be accepted,” he said. “I may not agree with the (lyrics) that the thangyat composed, but they have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” he said. “It’s their right to exercise them, so I am supporting them…”
Democracy activist and former political prisoner Nilar Thein said that authorities are increasingly limiting freedom of expression by taking action against artistic performers.
“We’d like to question whether the artistic expression of thangyat is really understood,” she said.
“There are problems, inconveniences, weakness, and strengths in our country,” she said. “Artistic performances on these issues are now being limited, and authorities are using their power to take action against freedom of expression. It’s totally unacceptable.”
On Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar authorities to drop changers against the first four arrested members of the Peacock Generation Thangyan troupe, saying that “satire is not a crime.”
Ex-captain charged under 505(a)
In a related development, a court in Yangon region’s Taikkyi township on Friday refused bail to ex-army captain-turned-activist Nay Myo Zin who has also been charged under Article 505(a), during his first court appearance, the former officer said.
The Myanmar Army filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Nay Myo Zin for comments he made about amending the country’s 2008 constitution during a rally in Ayeyawaddy region’s Ahpyauk township on April 1. The military filed its complaint two days later.
“This is the case against a former soldier by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military], and I have to face it before the court,” Nay Myo Zin said. “I'd like to urge them to act with soldiers’ honor. Soldiers need to maintain honor. A soldier with honor is a pleasure, despite being handcuffed. I earned handcuffs while serving the people.”
Lieutenant Colonel Toe Lin of the military’s Yangon Regional Command filed the case against Nay Myo Zin following his speech on the controversial constitution drafted by a former military junta that ruled the country.
Myanmar’s parliament set up a joint constitutional reform committee this year to determine which parts of the current charter should be amended to remove elements considered undemocratic. The armed forces, whose political power is enshrined in the document, oppose any changes that would diminish their influence.
Prominent Myanmar legal activist and human rights lawyer Robert San Aung, who is defending Nay Myo Zin, said township authorities should be the ones to file the case instead of the military.
“The local township police chief or administrative officers are the ones who should file a case since they [the demonstrators] had applied for permission [to hold the rally]," in accordance with Myanmar's Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, he said. “Instead, the Tatmataw is suing now.”
“Dropping the case instead of filing a complaint would help the Tatmadaw’s image and pride as well as the confidence of the people,” he added.
Taikkyi Township Court officials and Colonel Min Thet Oo of the Yangon Regional Command were unavailable for comment.
‘Keep trying, keep trying’
Nay Myo Zin also called for efforts at the grassroots level to find ways to amend the constitution, so Myanmar can become a federal democratic union.
“Keep trying, keep trying for ways to amend the constitution within one or two months,” he said. ‘With grassroots movements, it can become a federal democratic nation …”
Nay Myo Zin has been a staunch activist who has stood up for farmers and others who have faced injustices, and has been active in a social group that helps rural villagers in remote areas.
He was arrested several times previously and imprisoned three times since 2013 for participating in various protests. He was released twice under presidential pardons.
Nay Myo Zain’s next hearing is scheduled for April 30.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Kyaw Zaw Win, and Aung Thein Kha. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.