Human rights activists and press freedom advocates in Myanmar on Thursday voiced strong criticism of President Win Myint’s decision not to include more political prisoners, as well as two Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters journalists jailed for violating the country’s Official Secrets Act, among the roughly 9,500 criminals pardoned during a traditional amnesty marking the Buddhist New Year.
The president on Wednesday granted the pardons on humanitarian grounds to 9,551 prisoners — most of them serving time for narcotics offenses — including 16 foreigners and only two political prisoners, in commemoration of the Buddhist New Year festival known as Thingyan, according to a post on Win Myint’s Facebook page and to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP), a human rights NGO based in Mae Sot, Thailand.
Win Myint serves under de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi — herself a former political prisoner released from detention — who has been widely criticized for failing to free all political prisoners and backpedaling on freedom of speech and press freedom in the developing democracy.
Political prisoners in jail or undergoing trial include those who allegedly criticized government officials or the powerful Myanmar military and peaceful protestors such as ethnic minorities who demonstrated against armed conflict in Myanmar.
“I want all prisoners with lengthy prison sentences and political prisoners freed,” said Min Lwin Oo, a legal advisor at the Norway-based Asian Human Rights Commission.
During Thingyan in 2018, Win Myint pardoned more than 8,500 mostly drug offenders, including about 50 foreigners detained in the country and three dozen political prisoners.
Though rights activists and press freedom advocates said they welcomed this year's presidential amnesty, some said that the release of only two political prisoners contradicted the government’s declared goal of national reconciliation, a process through which Myanmar is trying to end internal armed conflict, forge peace, confront injustice, and restore faith in creating a federal union.
AAPP secretary Bo Kyi said a denial by the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government that there are too many political prisoners in the country was the reason only two were freed.
“The government still denies that there are many political prisoners behind bars. This is a denial of reality. This denial will only worsen the problem,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Of Myanmar’s current 364 political prisoners, 44 have been sentenced, 90 are being tried while they are in prison, and 228 are in the process of being charged, according to the AAPP.
Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist and the director of Equality Myanmar, said the presidential pardons did not include prisoners who have been arrested for exercising basic rights.
The two Reuters reporters, ethnic Kachins who held peaceful protests for an end to armed conflict in their state, and the former child soldier Aung Ko Htway, who is serving two years in jail with hard labor following a conviction for describing his abduction and forced military service, “were not supposed to be arrested in the first place,” he said.
“They were just exercising the very basic rights — freedom of expression and freedom of information,” he said.
“[The] presidential amnesty excluded prisoners from cases related to military and security issues,” he added. “We feel that we cannot welcome this presidential amnesty because it doesn’t include the prisoners who actually deserve it.”
Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo still held
Zaw La from Myingyan Prison and Maran Gun from Obo Prison, both in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, were the two political prisoners freed on Wednesday, the AAPP said.
The men are former members of the Mongko Defense Army from Shan state’s Special Region No. 1, a splinter group of the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, who have been jailed since 2000 on narcotics charges, the online journal The Irrawaddy said.
Though nearly 680 prisoners, including the two foreigners, were freed from Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison during the current amnesty, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were kept behind bars where they are serving seven-year sentences for possessing classified government documents about a massacre of ethnic Rohingya men and boys in Rakhine state during a brutal crackdown by security forces in 2017.
Their convictions in September 2018 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 pair.
On Tuesday, the staff of Reuters, with notable contributions from Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, was awarded a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in the category of international reporting for their exposé. A week earlier, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, awarded the pair its annual press freedom prize for their reporting on the killings.
Other activists indicated deep disappointment with government officials and lawmakers both at the Union level and at the state and regional levels for not doing more to release all political prisoners.
Tun Kyi, a spokesman for the Yangon-based Former Political Prisoners’ Society (FPPS), called on former political prisoners now serving as lawmakers in parliament to demand that the government release those who remain behind bars.
“There are more than 100 former political prisoners in parliament as well as in the government at both the Union and state and regional levels, but when it comes to the release of political prisoners, they are all silent.”
Intolerance for satire
In a related development, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday called on Myanmar authorities to drop charges against four holiday performers and a prominent filmmaker for criticizing the government and the military.
“Myanmar’s authorities are demonstrating once again their intolerance of criticism, even in satirical form,” said Linda Lakhdhir, HRW’s Asia legal adviser, in a statement. “Rather than arresting their critics, the government should listen to what they have to say.”
HRW cited the arrests of four members of the thangyat troupe in Yangon on Monday after they livestreamed a satirical performance criticizing the military on Facebook. They were charged with violating Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits use of the telecom network to “defame” people, but later released.
HRW described thangyat as “a form of slam poetry traditional performed during Myanmar’s April New Year holiday that has long been a vehicle for humorous criticism of everything from politics to social behavior.”
Zeyar Lwin, one of the troupe’s arrested performers, said the decline in freedom of expression under the NLD government mainly stems from the 2008 constitution drafted by a military junta.
“Freedom of expression and political activities declined to below the average level after the NLD government took over,” he told RFA, citing the administration’s suppression of such undertakings and the military’s interference in the judicial process.
“In our case, the prosecutor is the military, and the government has no say about it,” he said.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the four performers will be prosecuted for violating Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which criminalizes the circulation of statements and reports with the intent to cause public alarm and induce people to commit an offense against the state. The charge carries a maximum two-year jail sentence.
“As far as I know, they will be sued under Section 505(b),” he said. “The reason for the prosecution is that they wore military uniforms during their performances.”
HRW also took issue with the detention of filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi on criminal charges for allegedly insulting and defaming the armed forces in Facebook posts, and specifically for criticizing the political clout they are guaranteed by the country’s 2008 constitution.
At a hearing on April 12, the court denied him bail even though he is suffering from liver cancer.
In response to HRW’s statement, NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said, however, that freedom of expression has improved under the current government.
“Before, the condition of freedom of expression was much worse,” he said. “During our administration, people’s freedom to speak out and the media’s freedom to publish have improved. We have to compare it with the past instead of analyzing it during one segment of time.”
Myanmar drops on RSF index
Also on Thursday, Myanmar slid one spot on Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index to 138 out of 180 countries, because of the jailing of the two Reuters reporters and the spread of disinformation and anti-Rohingya hate messages on Facebook.
“Journalists are still often prosecuted under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which criminalizes online defamation and hampers investigative reporting,” RSF said in an analysis on its website. “Dozens of journalists have been subjected to criminal prosecution in connection with their work since Aung San Suu Kyi took over.”
Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Press Council said there have been more cases of reporters being sued by government and military officials than in previous years.
“In terms of the trials, we don’t see independent trials,” he said. “In the cases where the government or military prosecutes the media, we feel that the prosecutors are influencing the judicial system. I think these reports are reflections of these perceptions.”
According to Athan, an organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar, there have been 174 cases that have been prosecuted under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act during the NLD government’s tenure.
In 2018 alone, there were 14 cases of prosecution by the military under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, while 124 people faced prosecution under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires demonstrators to obtain permission from authorities to stage a protest.
“These are statistics that you can’t deny,” said Athan research manager Ye Wai Phyo Aung. “These statistics show that freedom of expression is in decline.”
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.