PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — After being detained for over two months for allegedly defaming the country’s top leaders on social media, ultra-nationalist provocateur Nay Myo Wai was discharged by a court in Irrawaddy Division on Friday.
Nay Myo Wai is a vocal supporter of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha and serves as chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, which contested the November general election on a hardline anti-Muslim platform but failed to win a seat.
Nay Myo Wai has in recent years been a notorious propagator of anti-Muslim sentiment on Facebook, and has also taken part in public demonstrations alongside Ma Ba Tha and other hardline groups.
Wai Yan Aung, an executive member of the Burma Teachers’ Federation, filed a lawsuit against Nay Myo Wait under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, accusing him of sharing posts on social media that defamed President Htin Kyaw, Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The offending posts featured doctored of images of Suu Kyi as a beggar and others portraying her in sexually suggestive positions. A photo of Min Aung Hlaing was overlaid with a speech bubble saying that he wouldn’t stage a coup because he wished to have an affair with Suu Kyi.
Another post called Htin Kyaw the president of a government formed by the “prostitute” and “kalar” party, referring to the ruling National League for Democracy and using a word used pejoratively to describe Muslims and people of Indian descent in Burma.
Article 66(d) carries a punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for “using a telecommunications network to defame,” and was used in several instances by the previous government to imprison those who mocked the president and military on social media.
Nay Myo Wai was arrested on May 4 just outside of Rangoon and has since been kept in a jail in Pathein, the Irrawaddy Division capital. On June 5, Ma Ba Tha publicly demanded his release, claiming the offending posts had been issued under fake Facebook accounts bearing his name.
The litigant Wai Yan Aung said that, during a trial hearing on Friday at a court in Irrawaddy Division’s Kangyidaunt Township, Nay Myo Wai denied that he had personally shared the offending Facebook posts.
“The judge decided to discharge him saying there was not enough evidence to accuse him of personally sharing the posts,” Wai Yan Aung said.
The judge made the decision “without properly questioning the witnesses,” said Wai Yan Aung, who insisted that it was Nay Myo Wai who was behind the Facebook posts and photos that “instigated unrest and defamed leaders.”
“I doubt the judiciary’s uprightness,” said Wai Yan Aung.
More than 60 of Nay Myo Wai’s supporters showed up at the trial and cheered his name when the favorable verdict was handed down.
The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the high clerical council appointed by the government to oversee Buddhist monastic discipline in Burma, declared on Tuesday that Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association.”
Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs Aung Ko has said that a Hate Speech law—which would criminalize verbal attacks on other religions—is being developed in consultation with “interfaith groups” comprising members of Burma’s various religious communities.
The President’s Office announced on Friday the formation of a high-level “Emergency Management Central Committee” tasked with preventing and mitigating interreligious violence in Burma.
Such moves could indicate a new willingness from the government to confront Buddhist ultra-nationalism and anti-Muslim hate speech, which have grown in Burma recent years—thanks partly to rocketing social media usage and increased freedom of expression. Its growth was abetted by what critics have variously called a timid, indulgent or even collusive approach from the previous administration of President Thein Sein.