YANGON — Until last month, columnist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing—also known by his pen name “British Ko Ko Maung”—enjoyed press freedom to some extent in his satirical writings.
His articles questioned the Parliament, Union-level organizations’ performance and criticized the policies of regional governments, and he spoke out on the suffering caused by the country’s long civil wars.
But on June 2, the writer was arrested and charged under the controversial Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law—which concerns online defamation—after a Myanmar Army official complained that one of his satirical pieces harmed the military’s dignity.
The piece titled “Kyi Htaung Su Thitsar” in Burmese, meaning “Oath Made in a Nation of Bullets” questioned the country’s armed struggle and peace process. It was published on March 26, coinciding with the army-produced film “Union Oath,” which commemorated the country’s 72nd Armed Forces Day.
U Kyaw Min Swe, the chief editor of the newspaper The Voice Daily—which published the article—was also arrested and charged with Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing, and remains in detention.
Despite being acquitted on the charges under Article 66(d) after two weeks of detention, the military brought another lawsuit against both Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing and U Kyaw Min Swe, resulting in the pair being charged under Article 25(b) of the Media Law.
Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing said he was still reeling from the first arrest, particularly in seeing his family suffer as a result.
In this recent interview with The Irrawaddy, he spoke about his feelings following his release, and the impact that the experience has had on his writing.
You have been arrested and charged over a satirical article. What you would like to say, concerning this?
I wrote in line with the technique of satire. It did not name specific institutions, groups, or the army, but generically satirized the situation of country’s long civil wars. But the military complained, saying that it harmed their dignity. I don’t want to comment on the charge under the Media Law, but using the undemocratic Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law against the media is unacceptable. We have the enacted the Media Law and if anyone has a complaint against an article published in the media, the charges should be brought forward with the Media Law.
I was arrested for 14 days even before the court accepted the case. I was released later, with the court’s ruling, after the Ministry for Transport and Communications remarked that the online defamation charge was not fit to prosecute me with, as I wrote for a newspaper. But I lost my child. My wife who was two months pregnant, miscarried because of the anxiety she went through for me… running to the prison, the police station and the court. Who will compensate for that?
Did you expect the arrest and lawsuit over your article?
Indeed, we satirists are writing at the risk of imprisonment. In the past, we satirized very indirectly, but in these days, our satire is not as indirect, so as to be more understandable to the readers, but not crossing the line.
For the article “Kyi Htuang Su Thitsar,” I read it three times after I finished it. I did not care to accuse or defame anyone or any group. It only included the feelings of pain, hurt and loss caused by the civil wars. I have a clear conscience about the article. That’s why I was surprised when I was arrested over it.
When did you start writing satire?
Since 2012, under the pen name “British Ko Ko Maung” and sending [articles] regularly to The Voice, Myanmar Post and many other publications.
Are you still writing satire since your release?
Are publications to which you regularly sent your articles still accepting them in the way they did before?
They ask me for articles. But some publications have requested that I not criticize China or the military. But as a satirist, it is not all right to write under [such] controls. If it is not okay with me, I don’t send to them. That’s it.
How about satirizing the peace process or the military?
I satirize not only the military but also the current issues. I write as if I am viewing the issues. But now, it feels like, “rein it in…bring it to a halt” [laughing]. But if the issue comes up to write about, I will do it.
Let’s ask frankly: knowingly or unknowingly, are you self-censoring in your writing?
I have to think about the consequences. I can’t just simply do what I believe. My wife has suffered from this incident. And also Ko Kyaw Min Swe [the chief editor of The Voice Daily] is still detained even though I was released. His family has suffered from this too. It has not just hurt me but also the people around me, directly or indirectly.
That thought has become a restraint to me. And that’s what I was afraid of—that it would also restrain other writers and media workers. It is not good for either press freedom or the country’s democracy.