Myanmar’s civilian-led government, which has violated basic human rights by prosecuting large numbers of critics, should repeal or amend laws criminalizing peaceful speech and assembly, according to a report issued Friday by an international rights group.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) administration under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi — Myanmar’s first democratically elected civilian government in decades, which came to power in March 2016 — has not used its overwhelming majority in the national parliament to make meaningful changes to repressive speech and assembly laws and has made some existing laws even worse, says the report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The 87-page report titled “Dashed Hopes: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Myanmar” provides instances of the government's use of broad and vaguely worded laws in an ongoing criminalization of peaceful speech and assembly, despite high expectations that NLD leaders would respect freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
It cites a sharp increase in arrests and prosecutions of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens that has undermined the protection of free speech.
“Abuses against the press under Myanmar’s new government have been particularly striking,” said Linda Lakhdhir, HRW’s Asia legal advisor and author of the report, in a statement issued Thursday.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy promised a new Myanmar, but the government still prosecutes peaceful speech and protests and has failed to revise old oppressive laws,” she said.
Off-limit topics include criticism of the Myanmar military and discussions of abuses committed by the armed forces, allegations of corruption against government officials, and accounts of what happened to Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state during a brutal crackdown by security forces in 2017, Lakhdhir said in a short video issued by HRW a day before the report was released.
“If journalists do cover those topics, they risk finding themselves arrested and imprisoned,” she said in the video.
Based on interviews conducted in Myanmar and an analysis of legal and policy changes since 2016, the report examines the use of laws by officials to prosecute their critics, including the Telecommunications Law, Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, and the country’s Penal Code.
Particularly tough on journalists
Prosecutions for organizing or participating in such assemblies surged in 2018, with more than 45 protesters arrested, most of whom have faced charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law that allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from authorities.
HRW cites the example of three peace activists convicted in December 2018 of defaming the military when they led a public protest calling for officials to evacuate civilians trapped in conflict zones during fighting between the Myanmar military and an ethnic army in Kachin state.
HRW cited another example of Myanmar students convicted of defaming the military for performing a satirical antiwar play, while a person who live-streamed the play was convicted of violating Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits use of the telecom network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine.
Journalists in particular have been arrested and charged under the Telecommunications Act, Unlawful Associations Act, Official Secrets Act, News Media Law, and Aircraft Act of 1934.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are serving seven-year sentences for violating the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing classified government documents about a massacre of Rohingya men and boys in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village during the 2017 crackdown.
Their convictions drew widespread condemnation from the international community, rights groups and media watchdogs over lack of proof of a crime and testimony that pointed to a police set-up of the two men.
HRW has called on the Myanmar government to stop using repressive laws against journalists and peaceful critics, and amend or repeal those that violate internationally protected rights to free expression and assembly.
It also has demanded that concerned governments press Myanmar to protect these rights and to reform laws penalizing peaceful speech to bring them in line with international standards.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has had a real opportunity to abolish the tools of oppression used by the military juntas, but has instead used them against peaceful critics and protesters,” Lakhdhir said in the statement. “It’s not too late to reverse course and take steps to fully protect speech and assembly in Myanmar.”
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Myanmar 137th out of 180 countries in its annual World Press Freedom Index for 2018 and said in October that the country’s position is at risk of falling even further in the 2019 index.