Education officials in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state on Monday filed charges under a controversial statute against a local lawmaker for online defamation for a social media post in which he heavily criticized the state in what some said is another attack on freedom of speech in the emerging democracy.
The lawsuit against Than Maung Oo, an Arakan National Party member of parliament from Ramree township, accusing him of violating Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law was filed at No. 1 Police Station in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe.
In a Facebook post on June 2 post, he said that Rakhine was the country’s worst state for education, economy, health care, and the rule of law, and that it had the worst roads and the most unpopular state government in Myanmar.
“Local people didn’t like it, and there is a big gap between the people and members of the state government,” said Thar Pwint, a community leader from Sittwe, commenting on the lawsuit. “[But] what he posted is true. We see and feel the same thing as he does.”
“He shouldn’t be charged because of what he posted, not only on political grounds, but also on judicial grounds,” he said. “If the Rakhine state government gets involved in this case, there will be a bigger gap between it and the people.”
According to law, the Rakhine state government asked the house speaker of the state parliament for permission to question Than Maung Oo.
But deputy speaker Mya Than said that the state parliament will not interfere in the case because it concerns a lawmaker and that speaker San Hla Kyaw will not permit the state government to question Mya Than Oo while parliament is in session.
Sein Tun Hla, the deputy director of Rakhine state's Education Department who filed the lawsuit, said it was the state government and not his office that pushed for the lawsuit against the legislator.
Than Maung Oo told reporters that what he posted is the truth. He also said that he expects authorities to act like dictators in the case against him, but that he will face whatever consequences may come from the matter.
RFA was unable to reach Rakhine state government secretary Tin Maung Swe for comment.
Section 66(d) is a criminal law provision that prohibits the use of telecom networks to defame people. It previously carried a maximum prison sentence of up to three years but was amended by the national parliament in 2017, reducing jail time from a maximum of three years to two years and making defendants eligible for bail. Another amendment bans third parties from filing cases under the Telecommunications Law unless they are directly affected by the action or are acting on an affected individual’s behalf.
Rights groups and Myanmar journalists have called for the repeal of the statute, arguing that government and military officials are increasingly using it to silence their critics, thereby threatening freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
As of mid-2017, more than 70 criminal defamation lawsuits had been filed under Section 66(d) during the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which has been in power for two years, compared to only seven cases under the previous administration.
Myo Myat Hein, an attorney with the Thazin Legal Aid Network in Sittwe, questioned whether the charge against Than Maung Oo is a threat to freedom of speech under Myanmar’s civilian government.
“We were happy to have civilian government with the idea of giving power back to the people,” he said. “This MP, Mya Than Oo, expressed what he saw and what he thought was right.”
He noted that under the NLD government, two other Rakhine state lawmakers — Aye Maung and Mya Than Oo — have been charged with defamation because of what they said and posted online.
“Is this a threat to freedom of expression? Is freedom of speech restricted for members of parliament?” Myo Myat Hein asked.
State lawmaker Aung Win of Myebon township said the issue could create conflict between the state government and Rakhine’s parliament.
“I think the state government and parliament are going to have a confrontation soon,” he said. “If the state government is taking action against MPs for such small matters, parliament will respond with stronger actions, and they will have more tension and problems.”
“It’s not good for the future,” he said. “The state government and parliament should talk, negotiate, and work together for the people.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.