Speech critical of the government is under increasing attack in Myanmar. While the military has long been intolerant of criticism, members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) are not far behind. In the past two weeks, NLD officials have filed several criminal defamation charges against government critics.
On September 18, the NLD’s Mandalay region office filed defamation charges against Aung Pyae San Win and Swam Ka Bar for posting memes on a satirical Facebook page about the Mandalay chief minister.
The same week, the chairman of the NLD’s Maubin township branch filed a criminal complaint against cartoonist Naing Zaw Oo (known as “Ahtee”), alleging that he defamed the NLD and its local branch in social media posts criticizing the local party’s record.
All of these cases were filed under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, which as amended in August 2017 provides for up to two years in prison for anyone who “defames” any person using a telecommunications network.
Both the Myanmar military and the NLD have repeatedly used the provision to silence their critics. Others currently facing charges include the editor of local media outlet The Irrawaddy, members of a group that put on a satirical thangyat (slam poetry) performance critical of the military, and filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who has already been sentenced to a year in prison at hard labor under a provision of the penal code for criticizing the military’s role in politics on Facebook.
While she cannot control the military, Aung San Suu Kyi can control her party, and should direct NLD party members not to file criminal cases against peaceful speech. She should also use the NLD’s majority in Parliament to repeal section 66(d) and amend or repeal other abusive laws that penalize peaceful speech. Until that happens, those who criticize the government as well as the military will continue to face imprisonment in Myanmar.