The chairman of the ruling National League for Democracy party in central Myanmar’s Magway region said on Wednesday that he issued a notice instructing regional bodies to take legal action against people who use Facebook to severely defame State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi or the regional and national governments.
“People from some townships in Magway region have been defaming the state counselor in various ways,” said Thein Zaw, head of the region’s NLD. “That’s why I have issued a letter with my signature within the party, instructing members to work accordingly and to take action against them, though not against everyone who defames her.”
“We respect and value freedom of expression and understand rights in a democracy,” he said. “That’s why we will not sue everyone who defames her. But we think there is too much defamation, and some of those [who are responsible] should be sued.”
Whenever the Central Executive Committee (CEC) members of the NLD determine that someone has written something on social media or has undertaken another action that defames the state counselor or the government, they will discuss the matter with lawyers to decide whether the violation is serious enough for the party to press charges, Thein Zaw said.
Then the party CECs of relevant townships will proceed according to the regional CEC’s instructions, he said.
Notices issued by NLD's regional and township CECs should be confidential and not leaked to the public, Thein Zaw said, noting that his letter was publicly disseminated though he released it as an internal order.
“We will work on it according to the rule of law by talking with lawyers, because I issued these instructions to have the rule of law,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi visited Magway on Aug. 9 where she delivered a public address on the country’s peace process in Pakokku township and later traveled to Mandalay and Sagaing regions, also in central Myanmar. It is not clear whether there were any comments posted online during her visit that could be construed as defamatory.
Nyan Win, A CEC member of the central NLD, said party headquarters had nothing to do with the letter issued by Thein Zaw.
“We saw this letter today, and it said to take action against those who defamed Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, according to law,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“This letter hasn’t hurt anybody, and I don’t think it is a problem, but I don’t know why people are interested in it that much,” he said.
‘Worse than a dictatorship’
Kyaw Min Swe, executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, said the notice issued by Thein Zaw restricts freedom of expression.
“It's like a restriction on freedom of expression, and people may believe that the government is a body that can’t be criticized,” he said, noting that people have said that the “so-called democratic NLD government” is worse than a dictatorship in this regard.
“Even the government of [former president] Thein Sein, which was half-civilian and half-military, never issued these kinds of instructions,” he said.
“It is a shame to see this kind of letter under democratic standards,” he said.
Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor-in-chief of Khit Thit (New Era) magazine and a member of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said the letter presents a “challenge” for the media.
“When people have their freedom of expression restricted, media are restricted in their freedom of the press at the same time,” he said.
“The party that campaigned and struggled for democracy has restricted democratic rights, and it is like they are acting as dictators now that they have power,” he said.
Though the NLD government under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi is the first fully civilian administration in Myanmar in nearly half a century, officials have increasingly sued their critics and the media for defamation in what many view as backpedaling on freedom of expression and press freedom after decades of stifling military rule.
Government officials, military officers, and high-ranking monks have specifically invoked Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law to attack journalists who criticize them or their actions.
Free-speech advocates have called for the repeal of the section, which prohibits the use of telecom networks to defame people. Violators are subject to a maximum of two years in prison.
In July 2016, a court in Magway charged a planning official from Salin township over Facebook posts in which he referred to Aung San Suu Kyi as the wife of a “kalar” — a derogatory term used in Myanmar to slander foreigners — after a member of the region’s NLD filed defamation charges against him.
The term was used by a former military junta that ruled the country to insult the then opposition leader who was married to British academic Michael Aris.
In October of that year, an NLD member pressed charges against two villagers near Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw for allegedly insulting Aung San Suu Kyi, reportedly calling her a "hag" who deserved to be murdered.
Reported by Zaw Tun, Kyaw Thu, and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.