UPDATED at 10:30 A.M. ET on 2019-05-23
The members of a satirical performance group charged with criminal defamation for lampooning country’s powerful military during their shows appeared in court on Wednesday and accused the army of meddling in their court case, the performers and their lawyer said.
Police brought five of the seven performers from the Peacock Generation thangyat troupe in handcuffs to Yangon’s Mayangon Township Court where they are being tried for violating Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code in April.
The section criminalizes the circulation of statements, rumors, or reports with the intent to cause any military officer to disregard or fail in his duties. It carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, a fine, or both.
On Monday, the other two performers charged with defamation appeared in Yangon’s Botahtaung Township Court.
The plaintiff, Lieutenant Colonel Than Tun Myint, gave his testimony, and defense attorney Aung Si Tun said the court inspected the recordings of the Peacock Generation group’s performances that the military officer submitted.
Paing Phyo Min, one of the detained members of the troupe, accused the military of interfering in the case and insisting that the defendants be shackled during the trial. Aung Si Tun said that it was not in line with the law to bring nonviolent defendants to court in handcuffs.
Paing Ye Thu, another troupe member, said that a police officer from Botahtaung Township told the performers that they had to handcuff them because a military vehicle was waiting in front of the jail where they are being detained.
“I think the police are being pressured by the military,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the Myanmar Army is trying to divert attention away from restive Rakhine state which is in the throes of armed conflict between government troops and a rebel ethnic army while trying to recover from a brutal crackdown by soldiers on Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Government forces have come under heavy fire by the international community for their role in the clampdown on the Rohingya
A week ago, Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a U.N. independent, international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, urged the international community to cut its financial and other ties to Myanmar’s military, saying its commanders must be isolated and brought before a credible court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
A ‘phony’ democracy
Right groups have blasted the arrest and prosecution of the thangyat performers, calling it another blow to freedom of expression in the developing democracy, where government and military officials have increasing used vaguely worded sections of laws to silence their critics.
Kay Khine Tun, one of the detained members of the Peacock Generation troupe, said democracy under the current administration of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is “just a phony one.”
Than Tun Myint refused to comment when asked by RFA after the hearing about accusations that the military is pressuring the court in the case of the thangyat performers, whose shows are similar to modern slam poetry and usually include humorous criticism of politics, society, and the military.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the defendants were handcuffed according to police regulations.
“Being handcuffed or not depends on the regulations in police manuals,” he said.
“Police manuals scrupulously mandate these procedures,” he added. “Besides, the military has obviously filed the lawsuit against the group, so we don’t have to interfere in police and courtroom procedures. If there is any interference, it will come out, so we don’t need to give them orders.”
He also denied that military, apart from Than Tun Myint who testified, had been watching the defendants during the hearing.
“Give us proof that other soldiers in uniform were there,” he said. “The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] doesn’t need to go watch the proceedings or preoccupy itself with this kind of thing.”
The next court date for the members of the Peacock Generation group is May 29.
Charges against 88 Generation
When members of the Peacock Generation were led out of a police vehicle and into the Botahtaung township courthouse on Monday, a scuffle broke out between officers and the performers’ supporters, who opposed the handcuffing of the defendants.
Five members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a group of former student activists who protested military rule 30 years ago, were charged at the township police station for causing the melee.
Police officer Yan Paing filed charges against them for allegedly using criminal force or assault to prevent police officers from performing their duties and for abetting an offense. The charges carry sentences of a maximum of three years in prison and fines.
“During the melee, we talked about the damage on our side, but they never mentioned theirs,” said Naing Ko Thu, one of those charged, referring to the police.
“It was only the next day that we learned that they filed charges against us,” he said. “It’s obvious that the police are being pressured by an organization behind the scene.”
Democracy activist Nilar Thein, another 88 Generation member charged, was initially detained but later released on bail, while the remaining four were released Wednesday morning after they signed statements at the police station.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: An earlier version of the report incorrectly stated that six performers from the Peacock Generation troupe appeared in Mayangon Township Court on Tuesday and that all seven appeared in Botahtaung Township Court on Monday.