Days after authorities in Myanmar arrested and charged a young activist for allegedly “defaming” the country’s military online, members of the public have slammed the move, saying she was unfairly targeted for being a member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Chaw Sandi Tun, 25, was arrested on Monday evening and charged the following day at a court in Ayeyawady Region’s Maubin district after posting photos on her Facebook account comparing the country’s new military uniforms to a sarong worn by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In Myanmar, it is considered an insult to imply that a man would wear a woman’s sarong, and the activist was taken into custody on the same day that a military official filed a suit against her under Article 34(d) of Myanmar’s Electronic Transactions Law.
According to the article, anyone found guilty of altering digital information in a way deemed to constitute “defamation” is subject to up to five years in prison. Chaw Sandi Tun is due to return to court on Oct. 27.
While only one other person is known to have been arrested this year after posting comments deemed critical of the authorities—a photographer who was released after three days of questioning—members of the public have questioned the need for Article 34(d) in rapidly reforming Myanmar, which transitioned from a military regime to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
“If the country is moving forward to a democracy, we should no longer have this law,” Information Technology worker Ye Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service Wednesday.
Lawyer Aung Thein told RFA that the authorities only use Article 34(d) against those who criticize the government.
“Because [court authorities] have charged this woman, they have to charge many others who have posted similar things on Facebook,” he said, adding that the law should not be used “as a tool of leverage” by those in power.
“The authorities use it when they want to and ignore it when they don’t. They don’t consider cases based on justice. This law should not be a part of the judicial system.”
Others told RFA that Chaw Sandi Tun, who had recently joined the local chapter of the NLD to assist with the party’s campaign ahead of general elections set for Nov. 8, was being unfairly targeted by authorities because she is a member of the opposition.
“[The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)] also makes personal attacks against the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer with the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Myanmar.
He referred to an incident last year in which Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut was forced to apologize after his wife, Khin Shandar Tun, spread a fake image of Aung San Suu Kyi wearing an Islamic headscarf amid a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.
Additionally, he said, USDP joint-chair Htay Oo recently mocked Aung San Suu Kyi during an election rally for allowing U.S. President Barack Obama to kiss her on the cheek during his two visits to Myanmar.
“However, neither of them was charged,” he said.
“The NLD is refraining from making an issue out of these attacks, so as not to disrupt the upcoming election, but the government is acting very sensitive.”
A poet named A Mon told RFA that the government is likely targeting the NLD because it is concerned about losing next month’s polls to the popular opposition party.
The NLD swept Myanmar’s election in 1990, though the party’s victory was ignored by the then-ruling military junta, and boycotted the country’s last polls in 2010, which were widely viewed as neither free nor fair.
“The authorities don’t charge [supporters of the USDP] for doing things similar to what Chaw Sandi Tun did,” he said.
“It is unfair—it seems they do such things because the election is drawing nearer and they are afraid of the results.”
In December, U.S.-based Freedom House said Myanmar had made moderate gains in internet freedom in 2014, but cautioned that “practices of the old regime … endure,” citing legal, administrative, and other sanctions to influence content.
The report also noted that the government amended, but failed to nullify, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law which the former junta used to criminalize political activism online.
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.