Rights group slams arrests of satirical performers critical of military

Yangon police interrogate a thangyat performer during Thingyan 2018. Photo: Facebook / Aung Aung Kyaw
Yangon police interrogate a thangyat performer during Thingyan 2018. Photo: Facebook / Aung Aung Kyaw

Human Rights Watch today joined a chorus of voices condemning the government’s arrest over the Thingyan holiday of four performers who took part in a satirical thangyat performance — think a traditional form of slam poetry — critical of the military.

The four members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe, Zayar Lwin, Pang Ye Thu, Paing Phyo Min, and Su Yadanar Myint, on Monday were arrested and charged with defamation under controversial section 66(d) of the country’s Telecommunications Law.

Video released by Zin Min Phyo on People’s Media’s Facebook shows them being confronted by police who explained that the military is suing them with 66(d). They were released from custody shortly after being charged.

In a statement released today, HRW called on the government to drop the charges.

“Myanmar’s authorities are demonstrating once again their intolerance of criticism, even in satirical form,” said Linda Lakhdhir, HRW Asia legal adviser. “Rather than arresting their critics, the government should listen to what they have to say.”

Section 66(d) has been repeatedly used by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government to silence its critics, including journalists and activists, and has been condemned for violating international standards of freedom of expression.

Thangyat performances have historically taken place each year over Myanmar’s New Year holiday and criticize everything from politics and authorities to societal and cultural issues.

These folk art performances were banned for more than two decades from 1988 to 2016, during which exiled Burmese communities kept the tradition alive through performances in their diaspora communities.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Coconuts Yangon today that the NLD-led Myanmar government’s “continued rights abusing crackdown on freedom of expression knows no limits” and that even “satirical street performers are not safe.”

“Sadly, the civilian government appears to be heading entirely the wrong direction on free expression and media freedom just as the 2020 national election is around the corner. If Suu Kyi and her thin-skinned ministers can’t even withstand traditional thangyat teasing, how in the world do they expect to handle the criticism that comes in a full blown national election campaign,” Robertson asked, adding that the four performers were owed an apology.

This is hardly the first time the NLD government has taken a harsh stance against satire criticizing their perceived shortcomings.

Last April, eight students who performed a satirical anti-war play and the man who live-streamed their performance were sentenced to three months in jail after being convicted of criminal defamation under section 66(d), which has been widely criticized for its all-too-malleable definition of the crime.

Earlier this month, filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was arrested and charged under 66(d) for criticizing the military’s outsize role in Myanmar politics in a series of Facebook posts. Despite the fact he is dealing with liver cancer, Ko Gyi was denied bail by Yangon’s Insein Township court.

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