RANGOON — Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, a Kachin aid worker jailed last year for a Facebook post that a court ruled was defamatory to the military, walked free from Rangoon’s Insein Prison on Friday, about one week ahead of completing his six-month sentence.
He had been serving time under Article 66(d) of Burma’s Telecommunications Law, a defamation charge, in connection with a photo posted to his Facebook account that captured a man in ethnic Kachin attire stomping on a picture of the Burma Army commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
The 43-year-old Kachin aid worker was arrested on Oct. 14 and sentenced on Jan. 22, with his release Friday coming just about a week ahead of schedule.
Speaking outside Insein Prison following his release, Khum Jaa Lee maintained that he had been unfairly prosecuted.
“Laws are not to threaten and punish the people, but rather to protect the public, and additionally I don’t want to live threatened by fear anymore, and I don’t want people live with fear and worry any longer,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Khum Jaa Lee walks free into a Burma of markedly different political dynamics than when he was jailed, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) sworn into power this week after a lengthy transition period. His arrest came less than a month before the high-stakes general election that saw the NLD trounce the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Khum Jaa Lee on Friday highlighted the scores of political prisoners that remain behind bars in Burma, and called for their release, expressing confidence that the plight of these inmates was on the NLD government’s radar.
“For me, to the newly formed government, to say something: Everything has to be totally new and I hope the government doesn’t duplicate the old policy of the ex-government,” he said.
In recent months a handful of cases similar to Khum Jaa Lee’s have made their way through the courts, including one man who shared a poem on Facebook implying that he had an image of former President Thein Sein tattooed on his penis. That trial is ongoing.
The civilian-led government steered by NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has promised to end prosecutions made on political grounds, but its ability to do so remains to be seen: The Myanmar Police Force and nation’s prison system both fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by the militarily appointed Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe, who does not answer to President Htin Kyaw.
Earlier in the week, a local USDP official was sentenced to six months in prison for sharing a fake nude image of Suu Kyi, and two days later saw the release of Chaw Sandi Tun, a 25-year-old NLD supporter who, like Khum Jaa Lee, was jailed in a defamation trial involving a Facebook post that antagonized the military.
Khum Jaa Lee suffered health problems while in prison, including numbness, high blood pressure and stomach pains, and was repeatedly denied bail on medical grounds during his trial. Though on Friday he said his health had improved, he still intended to see medical specialists to assess his condition.