A Myanmar court on Monday sent five members of a satirical performance group to Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison to await trial on defamation charges for taking comedic shots at the country’s powerful military during their shows, members of the troupe and their supporters said.
Judge Tun Zaw of Yangon region’s Mayangon Township Court ruled that the charges against the performers from the Peacock Generation (Daungdoh Myoset) thangyat group under Section 505(a) of the country’s Penal Code were ineligible for bail.
Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Than Tun Myint of the Myanmar military’s Yangon Regional Command filed a complaint with the court against the performers on April 15, accusing them of violating Section 66(6) of the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people.
Four were arrested the same day for failing to submit their script to censors prior to performing at a Thingyan Buddhist New Year festival and for livestreaming their thangyat — a satirical performance akin to slam poetry — criticizing the military on Facebook. Police arrested a fifth performer on Friday.
Later the charges for all the troupe members were changed to Section 505(a), a non-bailable defamation offense.
Zeyar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Phoe Thar, Paing Phyo Min, and Kay Khine Tun are being charged because their performance outside a tea shop in Yangon region’s Kamayut township during Thingyan damaged the military’s image, Taw Zun said.
Than Tun Myint ignored questions from the media after the hearing outside the courthouse, and court officials tried to stop an RFA reporter from obtaining a comment.
'We work with faith'
Members of the troupe defended their performances and said the charges against them are unreasonable.
Naing Lin, a member of the Peacock Generation thangyat troupe who was not arrested, said the group’s performances mostly include satirical material about the constitution and the military’s role in politics.
“So, the military sued us for all that,” he said.
Naing Lin added that the members of the Peacock Generation thangyat group do not have any regrets about their performances.
“We have faith, and we work with faith,” he Lin said. “We anticipated that our actions could lead to this kind of situation, so we kept walking with our faith.”
Myanmar’s constitution, drafted by a former military junta that ruled the country for nearly five decades, gives the armed forces considerable political power, including an automatic quarter of the seats in national and regional parliaments, a crucial veto over proposed constitutional changes, and control of three security and defense ministries.
A joint constitutional reform committee set up by Myanmar’s parliament is now reviewing which parts of the 2008 charter should be amended to remove elements considered undemocratic, with the armed forces opposing any changes that would erode their influence.
“All the problems taking place in our nation require the amendment or the abolishment of the 2008 constitution,” said performer Zayar Lwin. “Otherwise, this country will never prosper. We need to drive the military out of politics.”
'This is about reform'
Than Aung, a supporter of the young performers who attended the court hearing, called the arrests "unfair" and said they were not just about alleged defamation.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “This is just thangyat. Thangyat is a wake-up call for reforms in the country.”
“It would be a clear sign that this country is not heading towards democracy if they are arrested and jailed,” he said. “This is not about defamation. To be frank, this is about reform. So, I view all these charges as unfair.”
Mya Kyaing, father of performer Phoe Thar, told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the court hearing that the charges against the performers are too harsh.
“They are only students, and they did it based on the truth,” he said. “I feel sad as a parent. We thought the charge was 66(d), but now it’s 505(a). I think it’s a bit harsh for the kids.”
The group’s next court hearing is scheduled for April 29.
Reported by Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.