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Activists hold blue shirts that read: "Condemning on charge by military [is] oppressing freedom of expression," during the trial of members of the Student Union and leaders of Peacock Generation "Thangyat" performance group in Yangon, Myanmar.  © 2019 AP Photo/Thein Zaw
(Bangkok) – A Yangon court handed down more convictions against members of a satirical theater troupe for allegedly mocking Myanmar’s armed forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 18, 2019, a court in Botataung township sentenced six members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe to one year in prison. Seven troupe members had been arrested earlier in the year for performing satirical slam poetry known as thangyat, a traditional vehicle for humorous criticism of topics from politics to social behavior.

“Court rulings that performance artists are a threat to the military make a mockery of free expression rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Myanmar military’s ridiculous efforts to intimidate these actors for satirizing the military show how low they will stoop to silence critics.”

The Myanmar authorities should immediately quash all the verdicts and drop pending charges against members of the troupe that violate the right to freedom of expression.

The troupe members were convicted of violating section 505(a) of the criminal code, which makes it a crime to make any statement with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any member of the armed forces “to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such.” Five of the troupe members were sentenced under the same charges by another court in Yangon’s Mayangone township in October and will serve a minimum of two years in prison.

They are Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Paing Phyo Min, and Zaw Lin Htut. They have been held without bail in Myanmar’s Insein Prison since being charged in April. Su Yadanar Myint, who was arrested in May, will serve one year.

Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, and Paing Phyo Min still face charges under 505(a) in three other township courts in the Ayerwaddy region.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” Paing Ye Thu told Human Rights Watch immediately after the trial on November 18. “Thangyat is our traditional custom and the military is just abusing its power by charging us so many times in different courts.”

The seventh defendant, Nyein Chan Soe, was acquitted of 505(a) charges by the Botataung court on November 18. However, he will be released on bail as he still faces charges under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law at the same court.

All seven defendants are facing additional charges under section 66(d) for “defaming” the military, which brings a maximum prison sentence of two years. The authorities have repeatedly used section 66(d) against those criticizing the government or the military online.

In an open letter published on the Civicus website on November 15, the seven members stated: “We will keep criticizing and pointing out the flawed system in different ways because it is important for us to amend the constitution and to get the military out of politics so that we can pursue genuine democracy in Myanmar.”

Speech critical of the government is increasingly subject to prosecution in Myanmar by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) as well as by the military. More than 250 people have faced criminal lawsuits in 2019 under various laws restricting freedom of expression.

Section 354 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution states that all citizens should be at liberty “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on the right to freedom of expression, stated that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” Thus, “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”

“Myanmar’s friends and donors have good reason to be wondering why the military is persecuting a theater troupe,” Robertson said. “Unless such trials stop, it’s hard to have hope for free expression in Myanmar.”

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