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130 civil society groups call on Myanmar military to drop charges against civilians

Lawyer U Kyi Myint (far left), activist Ko Nay Myo Zin (center) and poet Saw Wai (far right). Photo and caption from The Irrawaddy

This article by Zaw Zaw Htwe is from The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement. The article is about the persecution of critics who are calling for constitutional amendments. The military drafted the constitution in 2008 which contained provisions ensuring its influence in parliament and the Cabinet even after the restoration of civilian rule and no matter the outcome of subsequent elections.

A coalition of 130 civil society groups called on the Myanmar military to withdraw cases filed against a prominent lawyer, a poet and an ex-military captain for allegedly defaming the military at a public talk about the constitutional amendment.

The Kawthaung Township Court accepted the military’s case on 31 October 2019 and charged lawyer U Kyi Myin, former Myanmar army Captain Nay Myo Zin and poet Saw Wai, three well-known activists, for remarks they made at a public gathering in Kawthaung Township, Tanintharyi Region, in April in support of the Parliament’s charter amendment committee.

On November 15, 2019, around 130 Myanmar civil society groups working on a wide range of issues released a joint statement condemning the military’s attempt to prosecute the three activists and calling on the military to drop the case immediately.

Six months after they gave the talk in Kawthaung, the military determined that the three had defamed the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, and the military’s leadership.

”Their comments were aimed at causing misunderstanding,’’ Colonel Thant Sin Oo from the Coastal Command told The Irrawaddy in a recent interview. He said that because of this, the military petitioned directly to the Kawthaung Court and the three were charged under Article 505 (a) of the Penal Code.

Ex-army captain Nay Myo Zin is already serving a one-year prison term on the same charge, filed by the military in Yangon, for calling the Constitution undemocratic.

In their statement, the coalition of civil society groups said that the Tatmadaw’s decision to open a case against the three is a violation of the Peaceful Assembly Law, as the gathering in question was held in accordance with the law.

According to the coalition, the military’s use of Section 505 (a) is not only a violation of the 2008 Constitution but it also runs the risk of damaging the dignity of the Tatmadaw and the country. The court’s decision to accept the military’s complaint without analyzing the case and without asking for an explanation from the three accused is also a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens, the groups said in the statement.

Daw Naw Ohn Hla, an activist from Karen ethnic group and chair of the Karen Women’s Union, one of the 130 civil society groups involved in the joint statement, said that

The military are the government’s staff. If they are doing wrong, citizens have a right to point it out. Citizens have a right to speak out.

Daw Naw Ohn Hla also told The Irrawaddy on November 15 that the military wants to send those who raise criticisms against the military to prison in order to stop them from speaking out.

Farmers’ affairs activist U Zaw Yan, a committee member of the Yangon Public Service Network, added that

The Tatmadaw is sensitive. The Tatmadaw has said it will protect the constitutional laws but they are suing people in violation of citizens’ rights under the law. How can we continue in the future?

He also said that people must have the right to speak out about their opinions and share suggestions regarding the military-dominated Parliament’s plans to amend the constitution.

On 30 October 2019, five members of the Daungdohmyoset (Peacock Generation) traditional thangyat performance troupe were sentenced to one year in prison with hard labor under Section 505 (a) for allegedly criticizing the military in their satirical performance during the water festival in April. The day after the performers were sentenced, the court accepted the Tatmadaw’s petition to charge U Kyi Myin, Nay Myo Zin and Saw Wai.

The performers were also charged under the same penal code section in other townships across Yangon and Ayeyarwady regions. The military has also sued them under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act for sharing posts on Facebook deemed defamatory to the military.

A monk from Mandalay Region was also charged in October for remarks in an interview that allegedly defamed the military, under Section 500.

Maung Saung Kha, the director of freedom of expression advocacy group Athan, told The Irrawaddy recently that there are now about 30 cases filed by the Tatmadaw against 77 civilians. He added that the number of attempts by the military to sue activists, especially those supporting charter amendments, has risen since April.

The Yangon CSOs Network also issued a statement on November 4 asking the military to drop all cases against civilians and calling on the government to release those who were sent to jail on charges related to cases filed by the Tatmadaw. The statement said that building trust between the people and the government, including the Tatmadaw, is the main priority while Myanmar is working towards peace and reconciliation. According to the Yangon CSOs Network, prosecutions against civilians will make it more difficult for the Tatmadaw to earn the trust of the people.

The Irrawaddy reached out to the military for comment, but army spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun didn’t respond as of November 15.

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