(New York) – Burmese authorities should immediately release two people arrested this week for posting images on social media mocking the military, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests took place in the run-up to the November 8, 2015 elections, with the military firmly in charge behind the scenes.
“These arrests and military sensitivity to online satire is a bad sign,” said Cynthia Wong, Senior Internet Researcher. “Both should be immediately released and the government should make it a priority to amend the laws that are being used to stifle freedom of expression online.”
On October 14, Burmese Special Branch police arrested Kachin peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee at his home in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township. During the arrest, police showed him a screen shot of his Facebook page post joking about Burmese military Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. On Thursday, Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was transferred to Rangoon’s Insein Prison.
Patrick Kum Jaa Lee has been charged under the Telecommunications Law, section 66-D which states: “Whoever commits any of the following acts shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine or to both: (D) Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network.”
Chaw Sandi Tun, also known as Chit Thami, was arrested Monday night and transferred to the Irrawaddy Delta after charges were filed against her by a military officer of the South-Western Command for a Facebook post which compared a htamein (sarong dress) worn by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to military uniforms. She has been charged under Section 34 (d) of the Electronic Transactions Law which provides a five-year prison term for anyone found guilty of “creating, modifying or altering of information or distributing of information created, modified or altered by electronic technology to be detrimental to the interest of or to lower the dignity of any organization or any person.” Chaw Sandi Tun is a former National League for Democracy officer and a former participant in student demonstrations in early 2015.
The government had promised the repeal of the Electronic Transactions Law in 2013, which was originally released by the previous ruling State Peace and Development Council in 2004 and was one of several repressive laws that has been used in the past to target activists.
The prosecution of Patrick Kum Jaa Lee is believed to be the first under Burma’s 2013 Telecommunications Law, which governs Burma’s dramatic expansion of mobile phone and internet usage after years of censorship. In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch warned that the benefits of improving Internet access may be jeopardized unless governments and corporations step up to safeguard the ability of people to use new technologies freely and without fear of reprisal. Digital technologies can become powerful tools for censorship and illegal surveillance, absent protections for human rights and other critical measures.
“Ahead of Burma’s polls, Burma’s military is utilizing old and new laws to harass activists, stifle debate, and arrest people for speech that is entirely protected by the right to free expression,” Wong said. “The campaigning period should be a climate of free speech and democratic debate – not one of intimidation, and suppression of online posts, including about the military.”
These recent arrests show pressure on activists is escalating ahead of the elections, and that there is also a climate of intimidation against activists who speak out against rising anti-Muslim and ultra-nationalist Buddhist movements in the country. The wife of Patrick Kum Jaa Lee is the prominent women’s rights and peace activist May Sabe Phyu, who is one of many Burmese civil society activists who have criticized the passage of four so-called ‘race and religion protection laws’ passed by parliament in 2015, and championed by the Buddhist monk-led Association for Protection of Race and Religion, or in Burmese, Ma Ba Tha. Mae Sabe Phyu and many other activists have been subject to death threats and being branded ‘traitors’ by senior monks and their lay supporters.
“This return to online repression should be roundly condemned by all of Burma’s donors, and especially investors in the tech sector who are profiting while people posting humorous content online face real risks,” Wong said. “The international community should loudly condemn these arrests and call for an end to the military using flawed laws to intimidate free speech.”