Tanintharyi Chief Minister Sues Local Newspaper over Satirical Article

By Htet Naing Zaw 1 December 2017

NAYPYITAW — Police have summoned the executive director of the Tanintharyi Journal after Tanintharyi Region Chief Minister Daw Lei Lei Maw filed a complaint over a satirical piece published in the paper.

In the complaint filed with the Dawei Township Court, the chief minister alleged that her name and that of her family had been sullied in an article headlined “Electioneering Smile,” which appeared under the byline “Mu Say Ooh” in the journal’s Nov. 20 issue.

“Police asked me by phone to appear after the regional chief minister filed a complaint. I am currently in Yangon, so I have to return to Dawei now,” Tanintharyi Journal executive director U Myo Aung told The Irrawaddy.

He acknowledged that the chief minister, who is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), had objected to the article but declined to comment further on the complaint.

The executive director said he would not provide police with any information about the writer. “I won’t tell them anything about Mu Say Ooh. We have a responsibility. Mu Say Ooh writes satirical pieces for our journal occasionally — not often,” U Myo Aung said.

In the newspaper’s defense, he cited State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comment that all citizens must have the courage to speak out if they don’t like something the government has done.

The satirical piece refers to an incumbent female administrator, “Shin Gwan Gwep,” who plans to contest an upcoming election for ward and village administrators. It mocks orders made by the woman in her capacity as a local administrator, as well as her promises and efforts to get re-elected.

“Nobody cared who ‘Shin Gwan Gwep’ was when the satirical piece was published in the journal. It only came to the attention of the broader public after the regional chief minister filed the complaint,” said U Than Win of Dawei Human Rights Watch.

By filing the complaint, Daw Lei Lei Maw essentially identified herself as Shin Gwan Gwep, he said, describing the complaint as a threat to press freedom.

In an earlier discussion of her administration’s limited experience of handling the heavy burden of government, Daw Lei Lei Maw once admitted to local media that she did not know “how to run a regional administration”. The satirical piece in the Tanintharyi Journal describes the ridicule Shwin Gwan Gwep is subjected to by villagers after she makes a similar comment.

In another apparent similarity with Daw Lei Lei Maw, the article describes Shin Gwan Gwep as having banned tractor-trailers and ox-driven carts from passing in front of her office. The regional chief minister allegedly imposed a similar ban, restricting certain vehicles from passing in front of her government’s offices.

“The worst part,” writes Mu Say Ooh, “is that she talked a lot about electricity. When she took office, she said she would reduce electricity prices by two-thirds. It has been more than two years now and she still has not been able to do it.” Daw Lei Lei Maw has promised to bring down Tanintharyi’s high electricity prices. Residents of the region have to buy electricity mostly from private electricity suppliers, but prices have yet to be reduced.

“So, are we supposed to say nothing even if it is necessary to speak out? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said we should boldly speak up against those we disagree with. This is the democracy that we want. I think the complaint was unwarranted,” U Than Win said.

The Irrawaddy attempted to contact the Tanintharyi Region chief minister several times, but the phone was only answered once, by her personal secretary, who said the chief minister was attending an event and not available to speak.

NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy that it was too early to comment on the chief minister’s complaint.

The lawsuit is the second filed this year in response to a satirical media article. The Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, sued The Voice Daily chief editor U Kyaw Min Swe and satirist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing (known by his pen name, “British Ko Ko Maung”) for a satirical piece about clashes between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups. The Myanmar Army later dropped the charges three months into a trial during which the pair were detained by authorities.