Dashed hopes: the criminalization of peaceful expression in Myanmar

Freedom of speech Freedom of the press Freedom of information Communications regulation Censorship Myanmar

The National League for Democracy (NLD) took office in March 2016 as the first democratically elected, civilian-led government in Myanmar since 1962, generating tremendous optimism that the country would see a significant shift toward openness. Parliament itself included 100 new members who were former political prisoners, and there was reason to hope the government would implement far-reaching reforms to laws and policies that had long restricted freedom of expression and assembly in the country.

That optimism has proved unfounded. With limited exceptions, parliament has thus far failed to make substantive changes to most of the laws used against speech and assembly. Instead, it has often done the opposite, strengthening some abusive laws and enacting at least one law imposing new restrictions on speech. As one member of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists put it, “If the government doesn’t like what you say, they can charge you with any law. If there is no law, they can make a new one and charge you with that.”

While discussion of a wide range of topics now flourishes in both the media and online, those speaking critically of the government, government officials, the military, or events in Rakhine State frequently find themselves subject to arrest and prosecution. “When we talk in the media (about controversial topics), anything can happen, but we have to keep speaking,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, advocacy director of Action Committee for Democracy Development. “We say it is like the lucky draw. You don’t know when it will happen.”

The decline in freedom of the press under the new government has been particularly striking. As Zayar Hlaing, editor of the investigative magazine Mawkun and executive member of the Myanmar Journalist Network, said, “Before the 2015 election, the NLD said it would protect press and promote independent media. After two years, press freedom is worse day by day.”

This report—based largely on interviews in Myanmar and analysis of legal and policy changes since 2016—assesses the NLD government’s record on freedom of expression and assembly in its more than two years in power. It updates Human Rights Watch’s prior report, “They Can Arrest You at Any Time”: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Burma, issued in June 2016, focusing on the laws most commonly used to suppress speech. We conclude that freedom of expression in Myanmar is deteriorating, directly affecting a wide range of people, from Facebook users critical of officials to students performing a satirical anti-war play. Domestic journalists are particularly at risk.

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