Military Using Lawsuits to Impede Freedom of Expression: Athan

By San Yamin Aung 2 July 2019

YANGON—Myanmar’s military has sued nearly 80 individuals, one-third of whom were accused of causing or intending to cause members of the armed forces to mutiny, fail or disregard their duties—a crime under Article 505 (a) of the Penal Code—over a three-and-a-half-year period, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report, produced by the freedom of expression advocacy group Athan, said the military has opened a total of 24 lawsuits against 77 individuals on similar grounds. In addition to the lawsuits under Article 505 (a), charges have included insult and defamation under Articles 500, 505 (b) and the Telecommunications Law; trespassing charges under the Law Protecting Privacy and Security of Citizens; and various charges under the Unlawful Associations Act and the Media Law.

Separately, over the same period of time there were six other cases filed by police officers, military-backed parties and their supporters against nine additional individuals for criticizing the military, according to the report.

Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung, research manager at Athan, told The Irrawaddy that the report looked at cases filed by the military and its supporters since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in April 2016 to highlight how far the military has gone in violating freedom of expression, and to track which laws they are using to do it.

He said the military filed few cases in the first six months of the NLD’s term, but that the number has gradually grown.

A graph showing the number of cases brought by the military quarterly since 2016. / Athan

Over the past three months, that number has surged.

The military recently opened cases against seven members of the Peacock Generation thangyat troupe, prominent film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, ex-army captain Nay Myo Zin, the Zwe anyeint group and a Buddhist monk, all for their criticism of the military. Farmers protesting in Kayah State and three reporters covering the protest were sued under the Law Protecting Privacy and Security of Citizens, and two news media outlets had complaints filed against them under alleged Media Law violations.

“As time goes by with the current government in office, the more the military has run out of patience,” Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung said, citing the increasing number of lawsuits and the results of Athan’s court monitoring.

In the cases the group monitored, he said, it saw military officers give increasingly combative testimonies in court and more impatient responses to the accused and their supporters over time.

“It is a concerning situation that the cases are increasing as the [2020] election gets closer,” he said.

A graph showing cases brought by the civic and professional backgrounds of their targets./ Athan

In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, legal expert U Khin Maung Myint also said he expects lawsuits to increase as the election draws nearer, both from and against the military, as the two sides battle for advantage.

Military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy that the increasing number of cases brought by the military is related not to the upcoming election but to the number of people defaming the military.

“We wouldn’t have a reason to sue if they weren’t insulting the military. As an institution, the military also has its own right to defend their dignity. If someone harms it, we need to take action against them,” he said.

Athan urged the military to respect people’s right to information and free expression. In its report, it called on the military to withdraw their lawsuits.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy Tuesday the military doesn’t currently have any plan to withdraw lawsuits they’ve opened. He defended the military’s use of controversial laws that free speech advocates have long called for repealing or amending.

“Those laws were not passed by us. Those were enacted during the colonial era and they remain [the law] now,” he said.

He said the current military is not the only group to file such lawsuits against individuals in the media, and that they were similarly used in the era of parliamentary democracy under the U Nu government.

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