UPDATED at 11:16 A.M. EST on 2017-04-13
A researcher for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy party was released from prison on Wednesday as part of a pardon for roughly 1,800 prisoners who have almost completed their jail terms as the country celebrates its New Year.
On April 7, a court in Kamaryut Township in the north central part of the commercial capital Yangon sentenced Myo Yan Naung Thein to six months in jail for criticizing Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in a Facebook post.
He was charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for those who violate it.
As he emerged from jail on Wednesday, Myo Yan Naung Thein, founder and director of the Bayda Institute which serves as the NLD's academic branch, told reporters that he will work to have Article 66(d) amended.
“The responsibility for activists and politicians is to protect people if their interests are harmed,” he said. “People shouldn’t be afraid of using Facebook. We have to amend it [Article 66(d)]. Protecting people is the responsibility of the current government.”
More people charged
The number of defamation suits filed under the article have soared under the government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian-led NLD government. So far, 54 people have been charged, seven of whom have been sentenced to jail.
“This conviction is an insult to the freedom of information that Burma regained in 2012,” said Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a reference to a policy that was permitted under the government of former president Thein Sein.
During Thein Sein’s previous military-backed government, only seven people were charged under Article 66(d), and five of them received prison sentences.
“It highlights the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to establish a favorable environment for freedom of expression, one in which online activists, bloggers and journalists should no longer have to censor themselves or fear becoming prisoners of conscience,” he said in a statement issued by RSF on Wednesday.
“As it stands, the Telecommunications Law is blocking any improvement in freedom of expression and the right to provide news and information, and must be amended without delay,” he said.
The prisoner releases come just before the start of Myanmar’s New Year holiday, a period when the president has traditionally granted pardons to detainees. It is unknown whether the amnesty includes any political prisoners.
A year ago, the NLD government released up to 200 political prisoners from jails across the country, including political activists and students facing trials for their involvement in a protest against the National Education Law.
Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners puts the remaining number of political prisoners in jail at 93.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: A previous version of the article erroneously stated that Myo Yang Naung Thein ran the nongovernmental organization Burma Democratic Concern.