Authorities in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state have announced an order demanding criminal charges against anyone who defames government officials, effectively criminalizing criticism in a move that rights advocates say will deal a new blow to freedom of expression in the multiethnic emerging democracy.
The Township Administration Department in the state capital Loikaw issued the order on May 3, advising Kayah state residents to refrain from activities or statements that could defame the ruling government.
Kayah is the only state or regional government to have issued such an order.
The order listed 10 examples of defamatory speech, including speaking ill of the government in wards and villages with or without the use of loudspeakers and using writings, images, posters, vinyl sheets, or symbols that could defame the government.
The announcement said that the order is intended for the benefit of the people and that violators would be prosecuted under existing laws.
Rights activists warned that the order contains vaguely defined terms that will allow the state government to interpret them to suit its own needs and ultimately harm freedom of expression.
Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, drafted by a military junta that previously ran the country, guarantees freedom of expression, though critics argue that those guarantees do not fully meet international standards.
Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education group, said that some terms in the order are very broad and subject to biased interpretations.
“For example, the order doesn’t provide an accurate definition of defamatory speeches against state and government organizations, so it’s open to the interpretation of the prosecutors, who may bring excessive charges” against accused violators, he said.
“I am concerned that it will affect the free press and freedom of expression,” he added.
In Myanmar, the penalty for criminal defamation is imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both.
Myanmar has seen a surge in arrests of peaceful critics of the military and government officials at the national and regional levels under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has lead the country since 2016.
Among those targeted have been satirical performers, political activists, and journalists, reflecting a rapid decline in freedom of expression under the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
‘A form of persecution’
Activist Dee De, a member of the Karenni State Farmers Union and one of the founders of the Union of Karenni State Youth, called the order an unacceptable form of persecution coming at a time when the government should be seeking cooperation with local citizens.
“It shows the dishonesty of the ruling government,” he told RFA. “It is a form of persecution.”
“We are now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which is affecting everyone,” he added. “They issued this order during a time when they should be working to protect people. This is not suitable.”
Dee De supported the NLD during the 2015 general election and took part in Aung San Suu Kyi’s security detail during her campaign trip to Kayah state, according to a June 2019 commentary he wrote for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.
He was arrested in 2017 and spent two months in jail for his involvement in protests against arbitrary killings by the Myanmar military. He was arrested again in June 2019 for campaigning for the removal of a controversial statue of General Aung San — Myanmar’s revered independence hero and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father — from a public park in Loikaw.
Ethnic Karennis in the state opposed the monument because Aung San came from the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority that dominates the country, and because they believed that the current government should focus on achieving equal rights for them.
L Phaung Sho, chief minister of Kayah state, declined to comment on the new order, except to say that it was issued in line with the state government’s administrative policy.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.