A court in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon has denied bail to two members of a satirical performance group on defamation charges for taking comedic shots at the country’s powerful military during their shows, members of the troupe and their supporters said on Friday.
The two and five other members of Generation Peacock thangyat troupe were sued by the military under Article 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code. They were charged by the military last month.
Members of Peacock Generation thangyat troupe Su Yadanar Myint and Nyein Chan Soe were remanded to Insein prison, their lawyer said.
On April 22, five other members of the troupe—Zeyar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Phoe Thar, Paing Phyo Min, and Kay Khine Tun—were denied bail and sent to Insein.
Article 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(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people.
Later the charges for all the troupe members were changed to Article 505(a), a non-bailable defamation offense.
“I think the court has favored the plaintiff’s wish. We are being charged under unlawful laws,” said Su Yadanar Myint.
“I think it’s a waste of our time. The trial date is set in the plaintiff’s favor and the court has ignored our wish. It’s totally unfair,” he said.
“This is a totally unjust country. Nothing is fair. Where are our human rights? We won’t bow. We will stand for the truth,” added Nyein Chan Soe.
Lt-Col. Than Myint Tun of Yangon Command also filed a suit against the Thangyat group under Article 505(a) at a court in Yangon’s Mayangon Township.
The thangyat performances have been described as similar to modern slam poetry. Their roots lie in the 19th century, but they were banned for about two decades in 1988, when the ruling military junta crushed a pro-democracy protest and instituted two decades of harsh rule.
The ban was lifted in 2016 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s government took control of the country after winning general elections in late 2015, raising expectations of a more liberal system that have largely caused disappointment three years into her rule.
“I believe these cases show that under pretext of existing laws, a certain group is aggressively targeting people who are seeking the truth,” said Nu Nu Aung of 88 Generation group of student activists who protested military rule 30 years ago.
“I think they’re doing it with a grudge and exploiting the law, and they are suing those who represent people’s sufferings,” the activist added.
Coinciding with Friday’s hearing, activists launched a campaign called “Blue Shirt” calling on the military to drop the cases and urging Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to intervene.
“We’d like to show that at least we civil society groups will not bow, in defiance against injustice. The government has never intervened nor issued a statement on the military’s legal actions,” said Saung Kha of the group Voice.
“Now we already have seen two presidents in power but no intervention on issues related to the Tatmataw (military) have been taken. Legal actions now keep coming one after another and no one said this shouldn’t happen. It’s disappointing,” the activist said.
Another Thangyat group, Oway Than, attended Friday hearing in Yangon and joined the Blue Shirt campaign.
“We launched the campaign hoping many others would join. We’re actually seeking justice. We want them to know that the army’s dignity will not be restored by legal actions like this,” said Oway Than leader Min Thway Thit.
“We will continue with more campaigns. We will try to find other steps if the campaign movements do not work.”
Reported by Aung Thein Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Paul Eckert.