[MYANMAR] Open Space #1: Freedom of Expression during Election
Ahead of the general election in November, the human rights situations in Myanmar are worsening. The government has continued to impose mobile internet blackouts in such turbulent states as Chin and Rakhine to silence dissent, leaving more than a million people without online network connections. Meanwhile, the democratically elected government – which came to power in a peaceful transition from the military junta in 2015 – have prolonged the prosecution against dozens of activists and journalists for exercising their freedom of expression. Moreover, the military has remained highly influential with no investigation for the alleged human rights violations against ethnic minorities in the country.
Responding to these situations, ASEAN Youth Forum held an open space via a Zoom meeting on September 26, attended by 13 participants including university students, ethnic minorities, and a person working for an NGO. The participants discussed various rights-restricting laws that have been abused by Myanmar’s authorities, which had launched more than 250 lawsuit charges related to freedom of expression last year. Four restrictive regulations were the main focus of the discussion in the open space, which include: (1) Section 505b of the Penal Code, (2) Natural Disaster Management Law, (3) Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law, and (4) Article 66d of Telecommunications Law. Participants agreed that these laws have impeded the freedom of expression in Myanmar. For example, authorities often use Article 66 (d) of Telecommunications Law to curtail criticism against the government and military with a pretext of criminal defamation.
The open space attracted first-time voters and youth from ethnic minorities to participate. Here, the young discussants could freely air their aspirations without having to fear retaliation. They respected each opinion even though there were disagreements among them. For instance, half of the participants wanted the government to uphold international human rights standards by abolishing the four aforementioned laws. However, the other half disagreed by arguing that those laws are not affecting Myanmar’s freedom of expression. These diverse opinions were reflected in survey results done after the discussion – for example, when asked whether they have experienced restrictions to express opinions, roughly a third (32 percent) of respondents gave an affirmative answer (YES, OFTEN), a little over 30 percent other said YES, ONCE OR TWICE, while the rest responded with NO. However, in the same survey all participants agreed that Myanmar’s laws need to be reformed to varying degrees.
Overall, the open space provided Myanmar youths a platform to exchange their points of view, expand their networks, and improve their communication skills.
Here are some highlights from the session
The mentioned laws were intended to improve people’s well-being. However, they are used to oppress the freedom of expression. To demonstrate peacefully, people have to get a lot of permits from the authorities. Sometimes, their request to demonstrate is rejected by the committee due to the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law. This law needs to be amended. Besides, the government uses environmental disaster law to sue the peaceful protestors.
The citizens should be aware of their duties and responsibilities while speaking out about their rights.
Ethnic minorities are restricted in many ways even to celebrate the memorials for their leaders.
Restrictive laws should be abolished and the government should amend cyber-security regulations. Although the word “democracy” is widely used, and people are aware that they can speak up, no one can truly practice democracy and freedom of expression because of those laws. Also, the websites such as “Justice for Myanmar” have recently been shut down and the journalists are at risk. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press should be upheld.
The main problem in Myanmar is identity politics. It was being propagandized under the long history of military dictatorship. People, especially the youth, need to be educated about politics with various methods such as per-to-peer education and discussions. A sense of liberty needs to be promoted. Meanwhile, citizens should be aware of their duties the duties and open-discussions among youths should be encouraged
There is no freedom of expression or freedom at all. Our loud and direct voices to the government are silenced. In some regions, voters are already forced to vote for particular parties.