Myanmar’s information minister on Monday defended the recent arrest of two activists who allegedly mocked the military online after rights groups slammed the move as a form of intimidation ahead of general elections scheduled for next month.
Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) activist Chaw Sandi Tun, 25, was arrested on Oct. 12 and charged under Article 34(d) of the Electronic Transactions Law after posting photos on Facebook comparing the country’s new military uniforms to a sarong worn by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Two days later, police arrested ethnic Kachin activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, 43, and charged him under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after he allegedly posted a digitally altered image of military Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing being trampled on.
On Monday, Information Minister Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the two had been arrested in order to “protect the honor of someone who has been insulted.”
“People can criticize or comment freely, but nobody can insult someone’s dignity, religion or nationality,” the minister said, adding that the targets of such insults have “the right to protection by law as a citizen of Myanmar.”
“These people were not charged because they defamed the military chief, but according to the law. Those who were insulted can decide whether they want protection under the law or not,” he said.
Responding to criticism that authorities had unfairly targeted critics of the military in the lead up to Myanmar’s Nov. 8 elections, Ye Htut noted that another investigation was recently launched after a netizen insulted President Thein Sein on Facebook, while “someone who insulted Aung San Suu Kyi was charged in [Ayeyawady region’s] Pathein district.”
The investigation related to Thein Sein could not be independently verified, but a policeman from Kangyidaunt township in Pathein confirmed that an NLD member named Sithu Aung is suing Than Tun—the local joint general secretary of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—for “defaming” Aung San Suu Kyi in a Facebook post.
“Officer Ye Lwin is investigating it, though we have not arrested the accused yet,” the policeman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to a report by Eleven news media, Sithu Aung had lodged a complaint with police over a manipulated photo of Aung San Suu Kyi which was posted on a Facebook page allegedly owned by Than Tun with a caption saying “Model Suu, who will compete in 2015.”
Ye Htut defended the arrests days after New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International issued statements calling for their immediate release.
“These arrests and military sensitivity to online satire is a bad sign,” Human Rights Watch senior internet researcher Cynthia Wong said in a statement over the weekend.
“Both should be immediately released and the government should make it a priority to amend the laws that are being used to stifle freedom of expression online.”
Wong warned that Myanmar’s military was resorting to both old and new laws “to harass activists, stifle debate, and arrest people for speech that is entirely protected by the right to free expression” ahead of the elections.
“The campaigning period should be a climate of free speech and democratic debate—not one of intimidation, and suppression of online posts, including about the military,” she said, adding that the military should drop “flawed laws to intimidate free speech.”
Under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law—holdover legislation from the former junta which Thein Sein’s government pledged to abolish in 2013—Patrick Khum Jaa Lee faces up to three years in prison if convicted of “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network.”
Chaw Sandi Tun faces up to five years in prison if she is found guilty under Article 34(d) of the Electronic Transactions Law of “creating, modifying or altering of information or distributing of information created, modified or altered by electronic technology to be detrimental to the interest of or to lower the dignity of any organization or any person.”
Patrick Khum Jaa Lee is currently being held in Yangon’s Insein Prison and Chaw Sandi Tun is incarcerated in a prison in Ayeyawady region’s Maubin district. Both are due to appear in court on Oct. 27.
‘Thin-skinned and vindictive’
Amnesty International last week had called the arrests “outrageous” and demanded that the investigation against the two be dropped.
“Myanmar’s authorities have once again shown how dangerously thin-skinned and vindictive they are when it comes to criticism or ridicule,” said Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh.
“They might claim that the country has turned a corner on human rights, but this is yet another chilling reminder that the same repressive practices continue.”
Haigh noted that human rights defenders and political activists in Myanmar “regularly rely on Facebook to share information and communicate,” adding that she found it “deeply worrying” that authorities appeared to be increasing repression in the country’s digital sphere.
Only one other person is known to have been arrested in Myanmar this year after posting comments deemed critical of the authorities—a photographer who was released after three days of questioning.
Reported by Thin Thiri, Khin Pyae Sone and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.