The new government of Burma has started releasing political prisoners, but on May 10, one free-speech advocate will face another farcical day in court.
Twenty-four-year-old poet Maung Saungkha first came to public attention for a poem he posted to his Facebook page in October 2015. One section of the poem, called “Image” – cited in an adoring profile of the poet in The New Yorker – says, “On my manhood rests a tattooed portrait of Mr. President. My beloved found that out after we wed. She was utterly gutted, Inconsolable.”
Then-President Thein Sein’s spokesperson, Zaw Htay, was the first to call for the prosecution of the poet on social media (although the charge was filed by a senior police officer in Rangoon). Zaw Htay has been retained by the new government as a presidential spokesperson. When he heard of the charges filed against him, Maung Saungkha went into hiding (he asserts he does not actually have a tattoo on his penis). Though his poem was an attempt at humor and protected speech under international law, Maung Saungkha was arrested in November and charged with transmitting defamatory messages in violation of section 66(d) of Burma’s Telecommunications Law.
A month later, in one of several court appearances so far, the prosecution additionally charged him with violating section 505(b) of the Penal Code for publishing a statement likely to “cause fear or alarm to the public” – though it is not clear what the public would be afraid or alarmed about. During a court appearance in March, after he recited the poem, he was physically assaulted by a fellow prisoner in the courthouse.
Section 66(d) is frequently used against peaceful speech. In October, the authorities arrested and detained two activists, Chaw Sandi Tun and Patrick Kum Jar lee, and charged them under section 66(d) for Facebook posts ridiculing the military. Both were convicted and sentenced to six months in prison and released in March and April after time served during their lengthy trials.
The government is still in the process of finalizing the amnesty of the country’s remaining political prisoners. Former political prisoner groups estimate that 61 remain, including the prominent former monk U Gambira, who was sentenced to six months in prison on April 27. A further 107 detainees are awaiting trial in political cases. Maung Saungkha’s case is yet another poetic illustration of the need for the new government to give priority to the repeal or amendment of a raft of rights-abusing laws.