Two small political parties in Myanmar have accused the country’s election commission of censoring their campaign speeches to be aired on state broadcast media before general elections in November, in what rights activists say is a violation of freedom of speech in the nascent democracy.
The Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) and the Dawei Nationalities Party (DNP) said Tuesday that the Union Election Commission (UEC) edited policy criticism from campaign speeches to be broadcast on Myanmar state television (MRTV) and radio. The DPNS cancelled its government-allotted broadcast.
The presidentially appointed UEC is responsible for organizing and overseeing the country’s elections and for vetting parliamentary candidates. Campaign broadcast rules require that political parties submit scripts of their speeches to the UEC for approval.
All parties are given 15 minutes of airtime on state TV and radio to present their platforms to voters during the election campaign period from Sept. 8 to Nov. 6. State-owned MRTV and radio channels are broadcasting the campaign speeches on a rotational basis, with fewer than 30 of the country’s 90 parties taking part so far.
DPNS candidates are vying for parliamentary sets in 16 electoral districts, while DNP candidates are contesting for eight seats in the 28-member regional parliament in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region.
The DPNS, a political party associated with the country’s broader democracy movement, cancelled its broadcasts scheduled to be aired on Tuesday because the UEC cut the mention of controversial topics from its speech, said party chairman Aung Moe Zaw.
The deleted topics included the Letpadaung copper mining project in Sagaing region, disputes over farmland in a village in Ayeyarwady region, and a cement factory project opposed by residents of Aungthabyae village in Mandalay region, he said.
The UEC also deleted part of the campaign speech that quoted a UNICEF report to highlight the impoverished conditions of children in Myanmar and a reference to young people as an “oppressed” class who shun government employment because of discrimination, Aung Moe Zaw said.
“Parties have the right to express their visions and statements freely, [but] now the UEC is limiting what they can say in their campaign speeches,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “This is problematic.”
“Limiting the contents of campaign messages is not good,” he added. “I don’t think the UEC has the authority to limit our campaign speeches.”
‘An abuse of power’
Similarly, Thurein Hlaing, secretary of the DNP, said the UEC removed parts of his campaign speech on the rights of the Dawei (Tavoy) ethnic people and the higher cost of electricity in Tanintharyi region.
“We are touching on issues about socioeconomic conditions,” he told RFA. “We are also speaking out about the rights of our ethnic group — our lack of self-determination and rights as a minority group.”
The party’s speech addressed inequities in power rates with Tanintharyi residents having to pay 200-1,000 kyats (U.S. $0.15-0.75) more per kilowatt per hour of electricity than people in other parts of Myanmar, and questioned whether they were considered second-class citizens.
The DNP also contended in the speech that ethnic Dawei groups had been incorrectly classified as one of the ethnically predominant Bamar groups, leading to losses of rights as a minority group and a lack of self-determination in their region.
Thurein Hlaing said he sees no reason why the election commission cut parts of the speech because the DNP had not violated rules on hate speech, or disregarded the sovereignty of the state or the unity of the people.
“They don’t have the right to do it. It is an abuse of their power,” he said.
RFA contacted the UEC for comment, but no one responded as of publication time.
Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said he was not aware of the cases, and had no control over the UEC. The party is fielding more than 1,000 candidates in the Nov. 8 vote, about 80 percent of whom are seeking reelection to their parliamentary seats.
‘Violating right to free speech’
Rights activists criticized the UEC’s move as an infringement on free speech and blasted the election commission for abusing its authority.
Maung Saungkha, executive director of Athan, an activist organization he founded to promote the right to freedom of expression in Myanmar, said censoring campaign speeches is a violation of freedom of expression.
“The commission should evaluate the content on the basis of whether it is discriminatory or defamatory,” he told RFA.
“I found that the censored speeches did not fall into either category,” he said. “They were just touching on the issues of politically persecuted groups and the hardships of ordinary people.”
“The UEC is not only abusing its authority, but also violating the right to free speech,” Maung Saungkha added.
Aye Kyaw, executive director of Open Myanmar Initiative, said censoring campaign speeches is not appropriate in terms of international standards and that the UEC doesn’t have the right to do it.
In August, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the UEC to change its rules governing political parties’ access to state-owned broadcast media to ensure that all parties could present their positions without undue interference.
The UEC stipulated in a July announcement that it would pre-approve all political broadcasts “under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say,” thereby violating international standards for the protection of freedom of speech, according to HRW.
“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Linda Lakhdhir, HRW’s Asia legal adviser, in a printed statement.
“Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process,” she said.
International standards call for a transparent and independent body that is separate from the UEC to set and regulate broadcast content during elections without prior approval or undue limitation on topics, HRW said.
Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying during the elections for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.