A court in Yangon has sentenced a former newspaper columnist for state media to seven years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine for violating a sedition law by criticizing Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on social media, in the latest challenge to freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian country.
Ngar Min Swe, a well-known critic of the country's de facto leader, was arrested on July 12 at his home in Hlaing township and charged under Section 124A of the Penal Code for Facebook posts that took aim at Aung San Suu Kyi, whose civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) party has been in power since 2016.
Charges were filed against Ngar Min Swe by police Lieutenant Colonel Thar Tun in Yangon’s Western District court.
“He was sentenced [on Tuesday] to seven years in jail and must pay a 100,000-kyat [U.S. $64] fine,” said Ngar Min Swe’s wife, May Than Win. She added that her husband wrote was he did as suggestions for Aung San Suu Kyi, not to criticize her.
When police apprehended Ngar Min Swe, they said their superiors ordered them to arrest him for defaming Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook, she said.
“He didn’t hire a lawyer for his case and defended himself in court because he feels he didn’t do anything wrong,” May Than Win said.
“What he said is right,” she said. “He didn’t defame her. The punishment he received is not appropriate for what he did.”
“I don’t even know what kind of government we have here,” she continued. “This government has said that it is a democratic government, but it is like one that operates counter to democracy.”
With Myanmar officials increasingly suing their critics and the media for sedition and defamation, Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy government appear to have changed course on freedom of expression and press freedom after decades of stifling military rule.
Earlier this month, two Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years in jail after they were found guilty of breaching a law on state secrets for reporting on Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, though a witness for the prosecution testified during their trail that the pair had been set up by police.
Ngar Min Swe used to write an opinion column in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper under a former military junta that ruled the country and has since become a critic of the NLD government, including its handling of the crackdown in Rakhine state that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
‘Sentence too harsh’
Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that facilitates human rights education and advocacy programs, said the court’s ruling should have been fair and impartial.
“It also needs to be clear about what constitutes defamation and what constitutes freedom of speech,” he said. “It’s also important for authorities not to use the law from the angle they want.”
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Media Council trade union, said Ngar Min Swe’s sentence is excessive.
“There are some other charges, but he was intentionally charged under Article 124A because the authorities wanted him to get a more severe punishment,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.
Myanmar journalist and political activist Thiha Thway partially agreed.
“The sentence for Ngar Min Swe is too harsh,” he said. “I don’t think it should be that excessive, but his writing is somewhere between freedom of expression and freedom of vituperation. And his actions [of criticizing authorities] are controversial.”
“People need to use the right of freedom of expression to promote good in the democratic era,” he said.
Yu Lwin Aung, a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), also noted the fine line between freedom of expression and harming a person’s reputation.
“Anybody can express his opinion, feelings, and suggestions freely, but it shouldn’t hurt another person’s dignity,” he said. “It’s as if Ngar Min Swe’s posts hurt the state leader’s dignity. We don’t want people misusing their rights.”
Hla Swe, a former lawmaker from the opposition army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), pointed out that current President Win Myint encouraged people to criticize the government during a meeting with members of the Sagaing regional government.
“[But] when Ngar Min Swe criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, he was sent to jail,” he said. “That makes it difficult for people to criticize the government.”
“Ngar Min Swe’s posts are sometimes funny like jokes, and he criticizes government authorities in a positive way,” he said. “[But] I think of his sentence as a huge deterrent to freedom of expression.”
Also in Yangon on Wednesday, the Kyautdata township court sentenced three demonstrators for failing to obtain permission for a poetry reading ceremony that was part of an antiwar protest at Maha Bandula Park.
Event organizer Khant Min Htet, poet Shwe Kyae Moe, and demonstrator Zayar Lwin, who gave a speech, were given a choice between a 15-day jail sentence or a fine of 20,000 kyats (U.S. $13) for violating Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which allows public demonstrations only if organizers first obtain permission from local authorities.
Those who participated in the demonstration demanded that the government end the civil war between an ethnic armed group and the government military in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state and rescue those trapped by the clashes.
More than 100,000 civilians have been displaced in Kachin state since June 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire agreement between the two sides broke down.
Khant Min Htet and Shwe Kyae Moe paid the fine, while Zayar Lwin opted for 15 days in prison.
“I chose the jail sentence to show that I don’t accept the charges against me or the sentence for giving a speech at a peace poetry reading,” Zayar Lwin said.
“Poets, politicians, and students are saying that people are hungry for peace,” said Paing Ye Thu, a protester who has been charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law at Yangon’s Bahan township court.
“We were just talking about how we need peace, but some people didn’t understand what we said,” he said. “The army is just a gatekeeper [for the country].”
Organizers from a similar antiwar protest in May in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay were also sentenced on Wednesday.
Aung Hmine San, a former member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), Poet Klint, and Dain Daung were each handed a two-month prison term, while ABFSU central executive committee members Hnin Aung and Than Htike each received a three-month sentence for violating Article 19.
Rights groups and lawyers see the pursuit of charges against peaceful protesters as a threat to freedom of expression and assembly in Myanmar, which voted in a civilian-led government in late 2015 after five decades of military rule.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Thet Su Aung, Kyaw Lwin Oo, and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.