YANGON — Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar on Thursday to drop charges against four satirical performers and a filmmaker arrested after criticizing the military, as an army spokesman defended “rules and limits” on freedom of expression.
Police arrested four members of the Peacock Generation “thangyat” troupe on Monday after they broadcasted a live show on Facebook during traditional New Year celebrations. Thangyat is a centuries-old tradition of performance that often lampoons ruling powers and social foibles.
“Myanmar’s authorities are demonstrating once again their intolerance of criticism, even in satirical form,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
During their performance, the troupe criticized the military’s role in politics, chanting “it’s time to say goodbye.”
The military ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years — tolerating little dissent — until democratic reforms began in 2011. The Constitution still reserves 25 percent of seats in Parliament, and control of several important ministries, for the military.
The troupe members were charged under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act, which outlaws “defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network,” and later released on bail.
A military spokesman told Reuters authorities planned to bring further charges under Section 505 of the Penal Code, covering public statements, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison and does not permit bail.
The arrests follow criticism of authorities over restrictions imposed on thangyat during this year’s New Year festivities.
Performers in Yangon, the commercial capital, were required to submit their lyrics to a censorship board, with a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy telling Reuters the restrictions were “temporary” as the country moved towards democracy.
Members of the Peacock Generation did not submit their lyrics to the board before performing under streetlights on a dusty Yangon road on Monday night.
“In my opinion, the military has taken action against us…because the government didn’t take action,” said Paing Ye Thu, one of the members of the troupe and a youth leader for the NLD, adding that there were “two governments,” referring to the army and civilian authorities.
“They are not protecting the interest of the people, they are protecting their own interest,” he said, referring to the military. “Whoever pokes them, they will sue and threaten.”
Defending the charges, Army spokesman Zaw Min Tun told Reuters freedom of expression was enshrined in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, but there were “rules and limits.”
“Everyone has the right to express themselves but not to insult or disgrace individuals or organizations,” he said.
In a separate case, a prominent filmmaker named Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was arrested last week after posting criticism of the Constitution on Facebook.
He has liver cancer and recently had surgery, his lawyer, Robert San Aung, told Reuters by telephone.
“For his case, the highest punishment is two years in prison,” he said. “His family are crying seeing his bad health, with that severe punishment.”
President Win Myint pardoned more than 9,000 prisoners in an amnesty to mark the first day of the New Year on Wednesday, but most were convicted of drug offenses and only two were political prisoners, according to a group that helps political prisoners.