Three years since the landmark 2015 elections in Myanmar that ended almost 50 years of military rule, the erstwhile pariah state is reeling from a slew of human rights abuses and political repression.
A group of young researchers and activists, who collectively calls itself Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization, monitored and documented how laws and various tactics are repeatedly used against dissidents, journalists, and citizens between April 2016 and September 2018.
Athan found that “the right to freedom of expression in Myanmar under the first two years of government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) is worsening despite initial hopes of improvement.” They recorded 150 cases filed under the Telecommunications Law. Of which, 139 happened during the NLD-led government. There are 43 journalists who face charges under 25 lawsuits. Of which, 19 cases used the Telecommunications Law.
The indiscriminate application of regulations and legislation — Telecommunications Law, Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, and Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law — has restricted fair comments and legitimate speech, limiting online and offline spaces.
These and similar findings are discussed in the Mid-term Report on Freedom of Expression. It provides an in-depth look into the state of free expression and press freedom in Myanmar.
Nation slides back to repression
Myanmar suffered massive setbacks in democracy after the military junta seized power in 1988. Ten years later, in 2008, it drafted a constitution that granted it enormous power and ushered in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political machinery founded to integrate retired military leaders into the country’s political system.
In the 2010 general elections, the first elections since 1988, USDP won uncontested. General Thein Sein was appointed and became the president of Myanmar. Freedom of expression remained curtailed under U Thein Sein government which promised to promote democracy. The government allowed protests but used restrictions using specific laws and deregulated private media. There were some progress in this area compared to previous totalitarian governments.
People of Myanmar expected more freedom of expression after the landslide victory of the opposition party NLD in the 2015 general elections.
The NLD-led government initiated some positive steps toward achieving fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Among these were freeing the students who had been arrested and prosecuted for marching from Mandalay to Yangon in 2014 protesting against the controversy-plagued National Education Law, and releasing political detainees including opposition leaders, laborers, and farmers.
The euphoria died soon enough once the government and parliament began restricting freedom of expression and other basic rights., intentionally and recklessly.
ATHAN believes its efforts (alongside those of other civil rights groups in Myanmar) to note and report violations of freedom of expression by state and non-state actors alike are vital in today’s political milieu, where fundamental rights remain mere aspirations as the country struggles to wrest itself free from the clutches of an oppressive state.