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Poet Maung Saungkha © 2016 Private

(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all charges against the free-speech activist and poet Maung Saungkha, Human Rights Watch said today. Maung Saungkha is to appear in court on August 21, 2020 to face accusations of organizing a protest demanding an end to internet restrictions in the conflict-affected Rakhine and Chin states.

On June 21, a banner reading “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine and killing people?” was hung on an overpass in downtown Yangon. The authorities charged Maung Saungkha for hanging the banner under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which criminalizes unauthorized protests and carries a maximum three-month prison sentence, a fine, or both. June 21 was the one-year anniversary of internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin states.

“The charge against Maung Saungkha is just the latest example of the Myanmar government’s intolerance of critical speech and peaceful protest,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser. “Instead of prosecuting those peacefully highlighting rights violations, such as the blanket internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states, the authorities should be acting to end those violations.” 

On July 7, Maung Saungkha first appeared in court to hear the charges made against him by the Kyauktada Township Police. “People are in a difficult situation because the internet is being shut down, and so activists are doing their duty and organizing protests,” Maung Saungkha told the media at the end of the hearing.

“I don’t see any signs or attempts to improve the freedom of expression in Myanmar,” Maung Saungkha told Human Rights Watch in an email on August 12. “In my opinion, the government prosecutes people for protesting against the internet shutdown because it still wants to have the internet cut off in those areas.”

The Myanmar authorities have continuously expanded their crackdown on freedom of expression and the right to protest.

On July 27, a court sentenced two student leaders to one month in prison for failing to give advanced notice of a protest they held on February 23, in Hledan Township. During the protest, the students demanded that the government immediately lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and called for accountability of those responsible for an alleged artillery attack on a primary school in Buthidaung Township that had injured 21 students. The student leaders, Myat Hein Tun and Kyaw Lin, are serving their sentences in Yangon’s Insein Prison.

The Kamayut Township Court sentenced seven other students who participated in the protest to one month in prison with hard labor on March 25.

The Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law imposes criminal penalties for failing to provide notice for an assembly or comply with broadly worded restrictions on permissible speech and actions at an assembly. The restrictions are contrary to international human rights standards that prohibit holding anyone criminally liable for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly.

The mobile internet shutdown in seven townships in Rakhine State and one in Chin State also violates Myanmar’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The government first imposed restrictions on mobile internet communications in June 2019, only permitting voice calls and text messages, also known as SMS. The restrictions were temporarily lifted in some areas on September 1, but the government reimposed the restrictions on February 3. The mobile internet restrictions were subsequently removed in Maungdaw Township on May 2, leaving eight townships subject to the restrictions.

The current shutdown enters its second year amid heightened conflict between the insurgent armed group, Arakan Army, and the Myanmar military. Although the Communications Ministry announced on June 23 that internet restrictions were provisionally extended only through August 1, the block on 3G and 4G services remains in place, with only 2G networks available. While 2G data can allow some downloading, the speed is drastically slower than 3G and does not allow services such as video calls, access to webpages with pictures, or videos.

On August 1, the Norwegian mobile telecommunications provider, Telenor, issued a media release stating that the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) had directed all mobile operators to extend internet restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data services in the eight townships where restrictions are already enforced. “The MoTC cites prevention of acts of terrorism as reason to continue Internet restrictions until 31 October 2020,” the statement said. “Telenor Group is deeply concerned that eight townships continue to lack meaningful Internet services, and for the impact on civilians.”

The government should lift internet shutdowns in the eight townships in Rakhine and Chin states, as fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces continues to threaten the safety of civilians. The blanket shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires internet-based restrictions to be necessary and proportionate.

“Myanmar’s authorities are increasingly acting to stifle peaceful protest and dissent, while restricting access to information that the government does not like,” Lakhdhir said. “They should drop the charges against Maung Saungkha, pardon others prosecuted for protesting the ban, and instead focus on repealing these repressive laws that continue to criminalize peaceful protest and expression.”

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