Authorities in Myanmar have formally charged four leaders of a traditional satirical performance team for failing to submit their script to censors prior to performing at traditional Buddhist New Year celebrations.
The charges were filed Monday at Mayangone township police station against Zeyar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Dee Yay, and Yadanar Myint, under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act. Their troupe, Peacock Generation Thangyat, had taken satirical shots at the country’s powerful military.
The performances, called thangyat, 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.
“The four of us were summoned to the police station. They asked us our names and biographies and wanted to discuss the charges with us, but we wanted to continue performing. They let us go, but asked us to come back when we were done,” said Yadanar Myint.
A police officer confirmed they were charged under Section 66(d), but refused to answer any other questions about the case.
Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to two years.
Myanmar journalists and domestic and international rights groups have called on the civilian-led government to repeal vaguely worded laws such as Section 66(d), which have increasingly been used by those in power, including the military, during the current administration to silence their critics.
There have been 53 cases filed under Section 66(d).
The dispute over the censorship of the thangyat emerged the same day a Pulitzer Prize was awarded to two Myanmar journalists employed by Reuters news agency, who have been jailed for 490 days for their role in uncovering mass killings of Rohingya Muslims in the country’s western Rakhine state.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced last September to seven years in prison for violating the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Spoofing society, politics
Prior to this year’s performance competition, the regional government of Yangon instructed thangyat troupes to submit their lyrics ahead of the holiday. Four groups scheduled to perform during a competition at a pandal (temporary stage) in North Okkalapa township on Monday night failed to comply, and were told they would not be allowed to perform.
Political activists, however, believe that the censorship goes against the spirit and purpose of thangyat and invited them to perform anyway.
“Thangyat is a chance for young people to voice their opinions during the New Year,” said Tin Htut Paing, a political activist, in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“[They] make satire, and ridicule and spoof our society and politics from the previous year,” the activist said.
“But this is more about freedom of expression, which is a democratic right,” he said. “The authorities are trying to silence these young people from proceeding with their performances. That’s why we have invited these four Thangyat groups to perform at our pandal, and we will take a stand together with them.”
In previous years, thangyat groups that did not submit to the censorship rules were not allowed to join in any competitions, but they were allowed to perform in other pandals in the neighborhood. This year, however, the government forbids the performances entirely unless the group complies.
“This year we can’t perform at the pandals that give prizes, but unlike last year, we are not allowed to perform in other neighborhoods,” said Kyaw Ko Ko of the Doe Athan thangyat team.
“[The government] made a threat that if any of the pandal owners allow a noncomplying team [to perform], they would shut them down and forbid them from building pandals in the future. Even when individual households invited us to perform in front of their homes, the authorities stopped us and asked for the IDs or registration numbers of the host families for their records,” he said.
“The authorities are intimidating local residents so that nobody in the neighborhood will dare have us perform for them,” he said.
Meanwhile Paing Ye Thu of the Daung Doe Myo Set thangyat team said the performers were banned from performing in all townships.
“When we got to a pandal to perform, the local authorities showed up, accompanied by police. They said we couldn’t perform because we didn’t submit our lyrics beforehand,” the performer said.
“After we had an intense debate with them, we performed anyway,” Paing Ye Thu said. “We have had so many similar experiences in every township we went to today.”
Censorship of thangyat is not only the domain of local government officials. The military has also filed charges against a thangyat team.
On Tuesday, three teams that failed to comply with the censorship rules and another team led by workers unions were slated to perform in Tharkata township, despite pressure from the authorities
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.